“I can actually say that I got to play Clarence Darrow on court.”
That was Kevin Spacey speaking to a few thousand audience members (in this case, you might say spectators) at an imaginative production of David W. Rintels’ earnest 1975 one-man show Clarence Darrow. The unique venue was Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, site of the U.S. Open.
Named after the tennis player and humanitarian who died in 1993, the arena is the biggest by capacity (23,000 seats) for tennis in the world. Spacey’s brainstorm to turn the stadium into a theater-in-the-round for a two-night exclusive engagement (June 15 and 16) marks the first time in Ashe’s 20-year history that it’s been used for such an occasion.
Whether it’ll be the last, that’s a conversation worth having. The production was impacted by a few minor technical flaws: Spacey’s microphone was too tinny for the acoustic massiveness of the venue and the cacophony of train and air traffic from the neighboring Long Island Railroad and LaGuardia Airport caused disruptions.
Many tennis players, including Roger Federer, have described the U.S. Open as among the world’s most difficult tennis tournaments because of the volume level. Over the years, New York City mayors David Dinkins and Michael Bloomberg (both big tennis fans) have requested that LaGuardia reroute landing patterns during the two weeks of the Open; meanwhile Rudy Giuliani, Yankees fanatic, said crank it up.
As a play, Clarence Darrow is a brisk, entertaining, very Wikipedian journey through the career of the iconic attorney and progressive lion (1857-1938). His support of unions, the working class, and racially oppressed led to landmark court decisions — many of which are chronicled here by Spacey in five-minute theatrical bursts, from the Haymarket Affair to Eugene V. Debs and the Scopes Monkey Trial to Leopold and Loeb.
On stage, Spacey is the perfect old ham to play Darrow, with every homespun line of dialogue and theatrical gesture dialed up beyond Frank Underwood levels. Frequently he jumps into the audience, shaking hands, pointing out people as prospective jurors, and sitting in between couples. You can tell that Spacey absolutely loves performing this — and for the audience at the first performance, that enthusiasm was infectious. Darrow’s court victories and noble platitudes about justice were showed with fervent applause.
And in a strange way, the noisome airplanes overhead actually enhanced the experience. The play is designed as Darrow stirring alone in his office, unpacking old boxes filled with newspaper clips and photos as he recounts his old cases. (Henry Fonda originated the role on Broadway.) Though the writing is never macabre, Darrow is, of course, speaking to us from the grave. And those loud fuselage blasts every few minutes began to feel like primordial roars, tremors of outrage over how much hasn’t changed.
“History repeats itself,” Darrow screams. “That’s one of the things wrong with history!” This production lends incredible throttle to that truism. And this all-too-rare combination of Darrow, Spacey, and Ashe is a reminder of the urgent power inherent within crazy ideas, theatrical and otherwise. A-