Kevin Spacey did a lot of strange stuff as host of the 2017 Tony Awards (those hokey impressions of Johnny Carson and Bill Clinton, using the Bobby Darren song “The Curtain Falls” as an unnecessary finale, hammily raiding Norma Desmond’s wardrobe), but that is nothing compared to the oversized vanity project currently going on at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, Queens.
For two consecutive nights, Spacey is using the large tennis venue (which is used each year for the U.S. Open and has approximately 20,000 seats) as the improbable and problematic site for an in-the-round revival of David W. Rintels’ simple 1974 one-man show “Clarence Darrow” (which he previously performed at London’s Old Vic under the direction of Thea Sharrock). Spacey made a point of plugging the project during the Tony Awards broadcast.
Darrow is nothing new for Spacey. He previously portrayed the famous turn of the century trial attorney in a 1991 PBS bio film that is pretty similar to Rintels’ play in content and structure. Spacey has also played Henry Drummond (a character based upon Darrow) in “Inherit the Wind,” the 1955 play about the Scopes “Monkey” trial, in which a schoolteacher was charged with teaching evolution.
The 90-minute show (which was originally staged on Broadway with Henry Fonda) belongs to the age-old genre of straightforward, sentimental, “come and meet George Washington” solo drama. Darrow offers cute anecdotes, witticisms, descriptions of his most famous trials (such as Leopold and Loeb, Scopes and the McNamara Brothers) and breaks into some of Darrow's eloquent original oratory.
On Thursday night, some of Darrow’s progressive positions on labor and civil rights (including arguments against the death penalty, racial prejudice and oppression of the working class) earned cheers from the crowd (which fell into patches and filled about half the Stadium — which is still pretty impressive).
Whereas Fonda came off as soft and fatigued in the original Broadway production (which was filmed for television and can be viewed on YouTube), Spacey is upbeat and fully charged and animated. He frequently leaves the center stage podium (which contains a desk, chair and various books and papers) and wanders along narrow planks into the lower level crowds — even interacting with them. At one point, he sat next to a young lady and noted that he believes in free love.
Just in case that is not enough to keep the crowd entertained, the performance is also telecast live, with close-ups on jumbo screens. (This may be a one-man show, but the crowd is bombarded with multiple images of Spacey at once.) Attendees are also able to bring concessions (namely beer, wine, hot dogs and pretzels) to their seats. Truth be told, a can of Heineken did a lot to help me get through the second act.
It does not take a genius to deduce that doing a one-man drama in a sports stadium rather than an intimate setting is probably not the smartest idea, but the biggest problems of this production actually involve the sound. Although the Stadium’s retractable roof is being used, the play is frequently interrupted by the overhead sound of airplanes flying to and from LaGuardia Airport. A vast echo effect also chews up Spacey’s vocal delivery of the monologue.
Spacey could have easily performed the show at a Broadway theater (or even a larger concert hall) for a short engagement over the summer. The marketing for the Arthur Ashe event was cute (with a tennis court compared to a court of law), but what may have been an effective and enjoyable one-man show in another setting has turned into a strange and stupefying spectacle.
Before the start of the performance on Thursday, it was announced that a play had never before been done at the Stadium. Unless Spacey is interested in following this up with "Golda's Balcony" or "Mark Twain Tonight," I don't think Arthur Ashe will play host to one ever again.
“Clarence Darrow” plays through Friday at Arthur Ashe Stadium.