In “Kunstler,” a fascinating play at the New York Fringe Festival about radical lawyer William Kunstler’s most significant cases, playwright Jeffrey Sweet strives to present a balanced portrait, albeit not mightily. Set in a university lecture hall in 1995, just a few months before Kunstler’s death at age 76, the play pairs the lawyer (portrayed by Nick Wyman) with a skeptical black student (Gillian Glasco), who has been tasked with introducing him, although she voted against his being invited. We also hear protestors outside the auditorium shouting “Kunstler is a traitor!” The character even quotes a few negative remarks that were made about him in the press (far from the worst ever said), done in a way to show that he relished his notoriety.
But let’s face it, this is an unmistakably admiring portrait of William Kunstler as he tells the stories, chronologically, of most of his best-known – and most dramatic – cases (cases that were explained in a recent documentary produced by his daughters, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe): The Freedom Riders and his work with Martin Luther King Jr. (“This was the beginning of my understanding [of] a different idea of the law.”); the Chicago 7 Conspiracy Trial after the 1968 Democratic National Convention (“by the end, I find that the trial has changed me. It has been the shock of my life”); the Attica Prison Uprising; the Wounded Knee case. There is a too-pat use of Kunstler’s involvement in the Central Park Jogger case, and only an oblique allusion to Kunstler’s representation of El Sayyid Nosair, who was accused and acquitted of murdering the anti-Arab extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, but later convicted of a conspiracy connected to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. (That’s what the shouting outside the lecture hall is about.)
The text is sprinkled with lawyer jokes, with exchanges with the student, and with glimpses into Kunstler’s private life. He tells us he started out as a family man “parlor liberal” Westchester lawyer in private practice with his brother, doing mundane attorney chores like writing up wills (such as the one he did for Senator Joseph McCarthy, brought to him by Roy Cohn, who had been Kunstler’s Columbia law school classmate). His first marriage broke up, because of his neglect (“There are weeks when she saw more of me on TV”) and infidelities.
But the main strength of “Kunstler” is in Sweet’s ability (using very few of Kunstler’s actual words) to bring his cases to life on stage, and to provide their historical context. Director Meagen Fay’s smartest choice is in the casting of Nick Wyman to play Kunstler. Wyman nails with breathtaking accuracy Kunstler’s mannerisms – the glasses perched on his head, the gesturing, his off-the-cuff manner alternating with bursts of language. But, intentionally or not, the casting of Wyman also gives something of an official seal of approval to this play (one that the play deserves; I fully expect it to have a life beyond the Fringe.) Wyman is not only a veteran of more than a dozen Broadway shows, including Les Miz and Phantom; he is also the president of Actors Equity.