Actor Jeff McCarthy brings a polarizing figure to life in "Kunstler"

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PITTFIELD — Jeff McCarthy is playing the title character in the play "Kunstler," opening at Barrington Stage Company on Sunday, after three days of previews. He calls the legendary defense attorney "a polarizing figure."

That's putting it mildly. During the 1960s and '70s Williams Moses Kunstler represented in court every noble but agitating figure that contributed to the turbulence of the era. They included the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground, the Cantonsville Nine and the case that made him a national figure — the Chicago Seven.

In later years, Kunstler represented the Attica prison rioters, the Central Park Five, the victims of the so-called "Subway Vigilante" Bernard Getz, and Colin Ferguson, who shot several people on a LIRR train.

In a recent telephone interview McCarthy says feelings still run strong against the man. He tells a story that when the play was at Hudson Stage in New York the company tried to promote the run by putting posters up in local businesses. When they approached a branch of a national bank one customer told the manager "You hang that poster and I withdraw all my money from the bank." Considering that Kunstler died in 1995, that's a lot of bitterness carried over the years.

On the other hand, McCarthy acknowledges there is also a large segment of the population who have forgotten about the man, or who are too young to even know who the attorney was or whom he defended.

The idea of what defines Kunstler's career is the central issue of playwright Jeffrey Sweet's two-person play. McCarthy explains that it takes place in 1994, at the end of Kunstler's life. "He is speaking at a seminar to young law students. The moderator of the talk is a young woman who asks questions that seem to challenge Kunstler, especially about his later career choices of defending known mobsters like John Gotti. Before long it is as if Kunstler and his career are on trial."

Sweet approached McCarthy with the idea about five years ago. The actor said once he started doing research on Kunstler, he became fascinated by the man, and Sweet wrote the play specifically for McCarthy, who is a long-time Barrington Stage favorite and an associate artistic director of the company.

He said there hadn't been any major changes in the text until Nambi E. Kelly was cast in the role of the African-American student in one of the more recent productions. "She is a terrific actress and a very intelligent person. She had a lot of questions and opinions about the African-American point of view on some things. Jeff (Sweet) didn't want some racial attitudes in the play to reflect only the ideas of two old white Jewish guys, so he listened and made some great adjustments. (The role will be played by Erin Roche at BSC.)

In our conversation, the actor's admiration of the radical lawyer was clear. "He was all about making a level playing space for everyone," McCarthy said. "He was dedicated to defending those who would not be able to afford a defense and he was passionate about the law and the Constitution."

McCarthy admits that Kunstler's famous flamboyance is fun to play. "He loved attention and was a consummate showman. In the court he was always wooing and flirting with the jury, the prosecutors, the judge, the press and anyone else in the courtroom. He was always theatrical which makes him a great subject for a play."

What was harder to find was the personal side of the man. McCarthy says, "He didn't reveal his personal side. He never presented anything that might make him vulnerable."

During the process of developing the character, McCarthy got to know Kunstler's widow and his children. "They all loved the man," he says. "Sarah and Emily came to see the show in New York but his widow can't bear to see it. She did come to a talk-back and that made me very happy. Kunstler's daughter, Karin, came to see it four times. She coming to Pittsfield as well. She asked me if I'd like to read his poems so she's bringing some up with her."

He stopped and asked, "Can you imagine someone missing their father so much they'd accept spending time with me as a substitute? She must have loved him very much. It's a tribute to the man."

It's also a tribute to McCarthy's ability to capture the essence of a very complicated personality.


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