Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens has seen its share of ferocious tennis matches, but right now center court is playing host to the multi-award-winning Hollywood icon Kevin Spacey. His opponent is…well…Arthur Ashe Stadium itself.
For two nights (through June 16), Spacey has brought David W. Rintels' biographical solo show Clarence Darrow to the venue, in an effort to live out his dream of "playing Clarence Darrow on court," as he said at the conclusion of the opening-night performance. Unfortunately, Spacey, Rintels' play, and Thea Sharrock's production, which originated in 2014 at the Old Vic Theatre, are the underdogs here, and at the close of the evening they do not become the victors.
Spacey follows in the footsteps of fellow titans like Henry Fonda (who originated the part on Broadway in 1974) and Leslie Nielsen (who toured the piece for a number of years). It's not his first time playing the great attorney and civil rights activist, either. He first took on the character in a 1991 television film, as well as starred in the more famous Inherit the Wind in 2009 (also at the Old Vic, during his tenure as the theater's artistic director).
Clarence Darrow is in Spacey's bones, and you can tell that the actor has an affinity for the man whose legal career spanned more than 40 years and earned a place in history defending the likes of Leopold and Loeb, as well as John T. Scopes. But Rintels' work, inspired by Irving Stone's novel Clarence Darrow for the Defense, is a by-the-numbers effort, structured around the elderly Darrow cleaning out his office and remembering various cases as he goes through assorted boxes and comes across photos and other memorabilia from trials.
It's not a particularly dramatic show, though Spacey tries his hardest to make us hang on his every word. It's a big, brash performance that's warm, welcoming, mesmerizing for those up close. Sharrock, who directed the Old Vic mounting, has Spacey making his way across the rows, casting the audience as jury members and delivering barnstorming closing statements directly to them. In being able to see the expressions on Spacey's face, those audience members certainly get their money's worth, and the full effect of the experience.
For those seated anywhere else, good luck. Clarence Darrow doesn't register to the upper decks by any stretch of the imagination. The sheer size of the 20,000-seat venue serves as the performance and production's hubris-filled downfall. While there are video monitors and a booming sound system, the screens are bizarrely obstructed by lighting rigs, and the "audio direction" by Jamie Pollock didn't take into consideration the fact that the seats in the upper decks weren't filled. Every line echoes off the empty rows, rendering it nearly impossible to understand anything Spacey is saying. (Being in a venue directly under the flight paths for both LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy Airports, and a stone's throw away from the Cross Island Expressway, doesn't help, either.)
And yet, Clarence Darrow is ultimately a heartening experience, garnering an audience that was broader than a traditional Broadway crowd. Given his popularity, though, Spacey probably could have captured the same crowd if he had brought it to a more size-appropriate venue like the Circle in the Square theater. There, in the round, everyone would have had the chance to share in the wealth of his passionate turn as one of American history's most important figures, not just those seated courtside.