Darrow’s tale of his mighty vindication of the Sweets and their co-defendants culminates with a heroic Greek athlete pose and the declaration “This time we won!” Then he hustles on to another anecdote. But what may have been the end of the story for Darrow wasn’t for Dr. Sweet and his family. His wife, said to have contracted tuberculosis while incarcerated, died of it two years later, as did his brother. Dr. Sweet eventually killed himself.
The stories of other clients are similarly abandoned after the verdict; perhaps the playwright felt that such details and follow-ups would interfere with his portrayal of a great liberal hero and white knight. Certainly, no time is lost on anything that might detract from, or even complicate, our worship of Darrow’s halo. His sour first marriage is miraculously erased with the introduction of a second wife, whose beauty and redheadedness are adduced to justify all. His belief in, and practice of, “free love” are mentioned glancingly, with a wink.
Intriguing as such asterisks seemed, I had little energy to spare while watching the play to wish for a fuller picture. I was just trying to stay interested in an event that, even from good seats, felt as if it were happening a mile away. What folly to have staged it in a 23,000-seat stadium, with four Jumbotrons relaying the action to the mostly empty upper decks. Still, more than 4,000 people attended on Thursday night — more than twice the capacity of the largest Broadway theater, if smaller than that of Radio City Music Hall, where Mr. Spacey hosted the Tony Awards ceremony on Sunday.
But the size of the space is not this production’s main problem. Nor is the difficulty of engagement with it the result of the roar of airplanes en route to, and from, the nearby La Guardia Airport. That these flyovers make portions of the play inaudible every few minutes, even though the stadium’s retractable roof is in place, is mostly a mercy.
The problem is that the production, based on a more conventional one that Mr. Spacey performed at the Old Vic in London in 2014 and 2015, is itself uncompelling. Staged now, as then, by Thea Sharrock, it seems underrehearsed, with so many longueurs and peculiar music cues that I found myself writing several times in my notes: “Inherit the What?” It was not even clear, at the end of both acts, that those ends had definitively arrived. But several tortured seconds of silence did.
At the same time, Ms. Sharrock’s staging is also bizarrely busy. With no actual drama to project, she has instead given Mr. Spacey a series of menial actions to perform over and over as he narrates the story: holding up photographs, sifting through files, carrying boxes, rearranging chairs, taking his jacket and vest on and off, all for no reason.
Though Mr. Spacey gamely obeys these directives and applies his usual polish to them, all of it backfires. Rather than making Darrow seem more relatable or genuine, his wonderfully smooth voice and physical grace render the character more of a fake, as well as an egotist and a braggart. This might make for a fascinating, subversive take on Darrow if carried out fully: a warped mirror image of Mr. Spacey’s conniving Frank Underwood on “House of Cards.” It doesn’t make for a coherent interpretation, though.
But one of the young people I took with me felt that the awkward artificiality of the evening actually served its underlying message. That message, he said, was one of inclusion, and, like Darrow’s law practice, was not aimed at the usual communities of people who can afford world-famous attorneys or Broadway tickets. Free seats were given to 350 students from 11 schools participating in Mr. Spacey’s youth arts foundation, and 600 others took advantage of a discount offer.
Still, not everything worthy is stageworthy, and soliciting applause for championing underdogs, as this “Clarence Darrow” relentlessly and without nuance does, can also undermine the gesture. The result, even in an arena that is supposedly more democratic than a Broadway theater, feels less like an American hero’s tale than like a good old Soviet embalming.
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