After 12 years at the helm of London’s Old Vic theater, Kevin Spacey bows out with what is, essentially, an encore: reviving “Clarence Darrow,” his one-man show from last year about the conscientious civil liberties lawyer. Six years ago, the “House of Cards” star played the Darrow role in “Inherit the Wind,” and you can see why Spacey’s gone back to him. Darrow was a natural rhetorician with a wry sense of humour, who fought for every kind of social underdog and won. He’s the perfect victory lap: a just-add-an-audience ovation-in-waiting role. The play’s as much a CV as anything else, but it serves as a superb showcase for a born star.
There’s no doubt Spacey deserves that. He took over a theater on the brink of collapse, teetering towards a possible future as a strip club, and will leave it, next month, with a sense of its place and a multi-million pound trust. His star-led programming hasn’t always inspired — too many conservative directors playing it safe — but the lick of Hollywood glamor, with parts for Jeff Goldblum, Kim Cattrall and Kristin Scott Thomas, not to mention Spacey’s own regular performances, have sustained a cavernous, 1000-seat theater without a penny of public subsidy.
Clarence Darrow lets loose Spacey the raconteur. He rattles through Darrow’s legal anecdotes, the greatest hits of a distinguished career, with the gorgeous, seductive musicality of a Hollywood voiceover. His voice is Southern-comfort crackle with a seesaw lilt, and he bustles around his onstage office, hobbling arthritically as he unpacks the case files that clutter his desk. The delivery is direct address, and boy, does Spacey revel in the close contact, strolling up the aisle and looking each and every one of us in the eye to start. At one point he practically perches on a woman’s lap. He’s pretty much flirting with us and we, in turn, stare back starry-eyed, with expressions that say, “Pick me. Pick me.”
That’s charisma for you. Darrow must have had it too: complete conviction and a way with words. Certainly, Spacey lets you see the actor in the attorney. Each cardboard box contains another courtroom battle: the Pullman Strikes, the McNamara brothers, Leopold and Loeb, the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. He holds up photographs of the defendants and refers to his case notes with a lawyerly precision. In each case, Darrow, who fell into law for the salary and the status, does the right thing and gets the right result, often with real legal acuity.
Spacey, meanwhile, gets to give voice to big, noble liberal ideals. “The cause of crime is poverty, ignorance, hard luck and, generally youth,” he booms. “I speak for that long line of men and women who, in darkness and despair, have born the labors of the human race.” It’s practically impossible to side against anyone who says such words.
Ultimately, though, they are just words. Rintels’ play, adapted from Irving Stone’s 1971 biography, isn’t actually fighting for anything itself, except maybe Darrow’s reputation and possibly Spacey’s as well. It’s a super swansong and Spacey holds us rapt, but “Clarence Darrow” isn’t much more than that. If only it had Darrow’s social conscience.