Jeff McCarthy is a showman's showman in "Kunstler" at Barrington Stage

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PITTSFIELD — It takes a showman to play a showman. The late political activist lawyer William Kunstler couldn't have asked for a more consummate showman to represent him on stage than actor Jeff McCarthy, who plays the controversial figure in Jeffrey Sweet's "Kunstler." The two-character play opened over the weekend in a riveting production at Barrington Stage Company's handsomely redone St. Germain Stage in BSC's Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center.

Sweet's play is set in early July 1995 in a college lecture hall where Kunstler is to deliver one in a series of seminars for law students. The chants of protesting students outside — "Kunstler is a traitor. Kunstler must go" — filter into the room from outside. The stage is littered with garbage, overturned chairs. An effigy — the word "traitor" pinned to its chest — hangs from a ceiling fan in front of the podium.

It has been left to a bright young African-American law student named Kerry — artfully played by Erin Roch — the lone dissenting member of the organizing committee that invited Kunstler, to prepare the stage and introduce him.

Not one to shy away from a challenge or controversy, William Kunstler built a career by defending clients who were less than admired by the public at large. He was a lightning rod. Some saw him as a brilliant trial lawyer; some saw him as an opportunist motivated more by his own self-interest than those of his clients. But, at one point in Sweet's play, this, as played by McCarthy, at once larger-than-life and acutely human figure, acknowledges that he's offended people over the course of a career that saw him defend, among others, rioting prisoners at Attica in upstate New York (his description of the prison at his first visit is chilling and unsettling); five youths charged with raping a jogger in New York's Central Park; the anti-Vietnam War activists who came to be known as The Chicago Seven; mobster John Gotti; Colin Ferguson, a black man who shot six people on a Long island railroad commuter train and for whom Kunstler used a "black rage" defense. "I never said he didn't do it," he tells Kerry in response to her indignant disbelief at Kunstler's defense of the man

"When I see the forces of government cloaking itself in the garb of legality and going after someone who is at a particular disadvantage, whether it's because of race or some existing prejudice or stereotype," Kunstler says to Kerry at one point, "it's my impulse to try and level the playing field."

"My whole career," he says earlier, "I have been working in the belief that by using the tools of the law, I can have a hand in changing the system."

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In a sense, "Kunstler" has the aura of a trial; of Kunstler, mortality closing in on him— he would die of a heart attack two months after the events of this play, just after celebrating his 76th birthday — aggressively defending his life, his career. In what borders on a gratuitous whole other play, the last portion of "Kunstler" involves a vigorous debate between the veteran trial lawyer and this bright, smart, quick law student who has her own, quite legitimate issues with Kunstler as she tries to make sense of what happened to a man she once admired.

For all the energy, commitment and showmanship with which McCarthy's Kunstler makes his case, the years of passionate commitment to his career clearly have taken a toll. It is no chance happening that the first — and last — sound we hear is the insistent thumping of a heartbeat. There are tell-tale signs of the coronary condition that will claim his life — a stiffening of his right hand; momentary pain throbbing through his right leg.

Sweet wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his eponymous character, warts and all. McCarthy responds, playing Kunstler as an engaging, witty, charming man with a sense of perspective; who takes ownership — even if it feels like an obligatory move on Sweet's part — of the price he and others close to him have had to pay for his Quixotic determination to make what he sees as an unfair, unbalanced legal system work the way in which he believes it should work. This Kunstler relishes performing, taking on roles; trying out lawyer jokes — genuinely funny ones, at that — that he's planning to use at his upcoming birthday party at a well-known comedy improvisation club in New York's theater district.

Roch acquits herself admirably as Kerry, who spends much of her time just listening. In one of the play's most engaging and compelling sequences, Kunstler draws her into reading, from a transcript that he has brought with him (along with a host of other papers and documents), the comments of presiding Judge Julius Hoffman during the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial at the height of the volatile anti-Vietnam War protests. Kerry is given further reign in the final quarter of the play when Kunstler engages her in a conversation about her own motivations in wanting to become a lawyer and why, as she has suggested earlier, she voted against inviting him to lead this seminar session. Given Roch 's performance, it's not difficult to understand what McCarthy subtly suggests is Kunstler's respect for this alert young woman.

In life, William Kunstler was a flamboyant, excessive figure. McCarthy's signature skill as an actor is to go at whatever character he is playing full tilt, without excess. The result, especially here, is a performance that is fully dimensional, richly textured and thoroughly compelling. It's enough to make a non-believer in William Kunstler a believer.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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