It’s not surprising that Kevin Spacey would choose to resurrect David W. Rintels’ 1974 play about Clarence Darrow — the famed criminal lawyer who, for four decades, fought with unusual compassion for the American underdog — at this particular moment in time. The question is: Why did Spacey, fresh off his gig hosting the Tony Awards, think it a good idea to bring “Clarence Darrow” to the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing — an impossibly unwieldy venue for an intimate one-man show — instead of a Broadway theater?
Spacey’s explanation is that his schedule couldn’t accommodate the length of a traditional Broadway run. But in the stadium, the show (which ran for four weeks at the Old Vic in London in 2015) is more event than theater.
For two nights only, audiences of up to 5,500 people can eat hotdogs, drink beer, and take selfies while Spacey paces, skips, runs, and spins, often out of breath, through the audience and on the stage, telling the story of Darrow’s usually productive life: how he was born in 1856 to progressives in conservative Ohio; how in the early days of his law career he represented underserved laborers (including miners); how he eventually moved on to criminal law, and, being vehemently against the death penalty, craftily saved scores of people from hanging; how he represented the science teacher, John T. Scopes, in the Scopes Monkey Trial against the state of Tennessee.
All this can be seen on several Jumbotrons, which is helpful, because there’s really not many seats in the stadium close enough to the stage to see Spacey’s face or even read his body language.
Though the writing is good (albeit a little dry), the production hasn’t figured out how to be an effective stadium show. Because the space is so large, Spacey’s voice is amplified, and the sportscaster-loud echo of one line of dialogue reverberates through the next. Planes fly low overhead every few minutes, drowning out Spacey’s performance, and sometimes the sound of cars racing on the highway competes with the show.
The unsubtle lights, too, feel more suited to tennis than theater, and the stage itself — a circle made from the kind of dark, polished wood you find in courtrooms, out of which emanate four runways—looks cumbersome and out of place against the backdrop of concrete stairs and built-in, plastic chairs.
Thea Sharrock’s direction feels like it’s overcompensating for the massive square footage, asking Spacey to move constantly so that audience members around the stadium can glimpse his face, rather than the back of his head from yards away. So while Spacey is narrating the story of Darrow’s life, he’s also rearranging his office — lifting crates, unpacking boxes, adding one stack of papers to another at the other end of the stage — for no particular reason except to give a 360-degree view. This is all happening so fast and with such happy vigor that it feels like Darrow is on speed.
Actually, one never gets the feeling one is watching Clarence Darrow—it’s all Kevin Spacey, showboating for a wide variety of New Yorkers and their out-of-town friends (and 350 students, to whom the Kevin Spacey Foundation donated seats) by bringing them to a kind of theatrical political rally. Every time Spacey speaks of winning a case for a vulnerable client, the audience cheers, and after a while you get the sense that this venue, with its awful sound, pungent smells, and flip-up seats, is exactly where this event is meant to happen. Like Trump’s rallies, it is theater for the American people, only this time we know that the great man is good.