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Trial by Theater

William Moses Kunstler was by far the most famous of all the left-wing lawyers who rose to prominence during the politically supercharged 1960s, defining a new caste of television-ready legal advocates who spoke for (and often shaped) the great issues of the day. There have always been celebrity lawyers -- Louis Nizer, Melvin Belli, F. Lee Bailey, to name a few of this century’s -- and there has also been a tradition of notable left-wing attorneys, beginning with Clarence Darrow and continuing on through Vincent Hallinan. But it was only with the 1960s -- and Kunstler‘s emergence -- that radical barristers drank the aphrodisiac wine of media fame. For more than 30 years, Kunstler’s figure would frequently appear in the long mural of American protest, from Martin Luther King Jr.‘s entourage to the trial of the World Trade Center bombers.

Kunstler’s outward image, with his glasses forever slung back upon a nimbus of salt-and-pepper hair, seemed from the start to have been created by caricaturist David Levine -- a look that forever defined him in the public‘s mind. Small wonder that this flamboyant New Yorker would inspire characters found in no fewer than three movies, and would occasionally himself appear in other films, or on TV. Writer Nick Zagone knew what he was doing in choosing Kunstler, who died in 1995 at the age of 76, as the hero of his bioplay, David and Goliath in America, currently on view at the Road Theater Company -- Kunstler is one of the few historical personas a playwright would actually have to make smaller than life to fit onto the stage, one capable of providing enough material for a festival of dramas.

And of comedies too, for when we encounter Kunstler (Matt Gottlieb) early on, he has arrived in Mississippi, on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, to offer his help to the Freedom Riders then being arrested by the hundreds. Kunstler, feeling a little self-important after winning a landmark appeal concerning passports, is almost farcically ordered about like an errand boy by harried civil rights organizer Jack Young (Curtis C). Soon after, the lawyer and Martin Luther King Jr. are cowering on the floor of a motel after hearing suspicious noises that turn out to be caused by none other than the irreverent, pot-smoking Abbie Hoffman.

The civil rights movement transforms Kunstler from a mildly radical Westchester lawyer to a passionate defender of the defenseless, and the stage quickly becomes a parade of the characters and causes with which he became intertwined throughout the ’60s: Lenny Bruce, H. Rap Brown, Malcolm X, the 1967 Pentagon march and, ultimately, the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. Kunstler‘s sometimes novel legal strategies and brilliant successes in court made him a major player on the stage of radical politics, a fact not unnoticed by the FBI, or by Kunstler, who throughout his career reveled in the media spotlight.

From his play’s beginning, Zagone offers this somewhat Faustian premise: that in return for not exposing the government‘s lack of evidence against the Rosenbergs, J. Edgar Hoover (Michael Scheer) will allow Kunstler the kind of safe passage through life so noticeably denied other social outlaws of the era, culminating here in a compact telling of the Chicago 7 trial, depicted by four of the defendants (Hoffman, Bobby Seale, David Dellinger and Jerry Rubin, played, respectively, by Sal Rendino, Curtis C, Paul Braden and Tripp Pickell) and only their lead attorney, Kunstler.

These anarchic proceedings, in which Kunstler and his relentlessly derisive clients confront an equally implacable conservative justice system, dominate this 100-minute, intermissionless evening. In a way, this is fitting because the Chicago 7 trial thrust Kunstler into the not-so-reluctant role of counterculture superstar. But in another, far more fundamental way, this is a mistake, for it abruptly replaces the colorful historical pageant Zagone has set in motion with a repetitious re-enactment of a trial already familiar to any audience that saw Ron Sossi and Frank Condon’s The Chicago Conspiracy Trial, and whose Greatest Hits of the ‘60s soundtrack quickly becomes grating. (”There must be some way out of here, said the theater critic to the thief . . .“)

Obviously, Zagone had to concentrate his story on one or two key phases of Kunstler’s eventful life -- and, to his credit, did not go the Bill Graham Presents solo-show route. But Zagone‘s obsession with the trial neglects precisely those contradictions in Kunstler’s personality that cry out for attention. Here, after all, was a white man who wished he had been born black, a radical who had drafted Joe McCarthy‘s will, a free spirit racked by lifelong guilt for letting an Army buddy take his seat on a plane that crashed into a mountain. He was also, by all accounts, not a very self-reflective man; if, like his fellow radical lawyer Charles Garry, who was forced to flee into the jungle to escape the Jonestown holocaust, Kunstler ever had a dark night of the soul, he never let on.

When Zagone probes Kunstler’s inner torments, the effect is rather pat and stagey: Recurring set pieces interrupt the story; complaints abound from his square, neglected first wife, Lotte (Kelly Warren); there are references to his deal with Hoover (an interesting, if gimmicky, proposition spun from Kunstler‘s real-life discovery about a key piece of Rosenberg evidence) and phone calls from his increasingly needy brother (Dennis Gersten). That constantly ringing phone, in fact, becomes the bane of this play, making us, before very long, contemplate the silent pager’s invention with newfound admiration.

Director Ken Sawyer and a crackerjack ensemble go all out to make the most of what Zagone has given them, and for a while they succeed in diverting our attention from the play‘s seams. Even in the drawn-out Chicago trial, the actors bring a forceful presence to the proceedings that never wanes. Desma Murphy has designed a columned, faux-marble set that facilitates both rapid movement and scene changes, as well as underscoring Kunstler’s innate theatricality. (Whenever Hoover appears, he sits enthroned at a restaurant table upstage, flanked by statues of Justice and the titular David, whose stone image held so much significance for Kunstler.) Portraying the great lawyer, Gottlieb looks less like Kunstler than like Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, and is only able to enact a tight range of shifting emotions (outrage, levity); and, like the script, isn‘t able to decode the inner, quieter Kunstler -- a figure who merely became more opaque with his overexposure in the media.

Like many radicals, Kunstler subscribed to Eugene V. Debs’ famous courtroom declaration ”While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.“ That may suggest the motivations behind Kunstler‘s early career, but there’s still much explaining to do to account for his choice of later clients who were unpopular even among progressives: mass killer Colin Ferguson; drug dealer and cop shooter Larry Davis; El Sayyid Nosair, the alleged assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane; Mafia don John Gotti; and radical Muslim cleric Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman. Defending these and other men made him an anathema to many Jews, cops and just average people. Clearly, Kunstler was a man who desperately needed to be hated, but why? Zagone has impeccably researched his subject, but has yet to understand him.