Critic's Notebook: Kevin Spacey Misses His Serve Performing a One-Man Play in a Tennis Stadium

Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Kevin Spacey in 'Clarence Darrow'

The actor squanders the opportunity to successfully reprise his London solo hit, 'Clarence Darrow,' by presenting it in a ridiculously inappropriate venue.

For two nights only, Kevin Spacey is delivering a superb performance as Clarence Darrow in David W. Rintels’ acclaimed one-person play, which shares the name of the legendary American lawyer. Too bad New Yorkers aren’t getting to see it properly.

That’s because the Oscar- and Tony-winning actor made the unfortunately grandiose choice of performing Clarence Darrow not at a traditional theater but rather at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, Queens. Hard to believe that the cavernous modern stadium, which normally hosts U.S. Open tennis matches, was the best venue for this intimate work, which Spacey performed to great acclaim at London’s Old Vic two years ago, near the end of his tenure as artistic director there. He had previously played the pioneering lawyer at the same venue in the classic courtroom drama, Inherit the Wind.

When it was first announced that Spacey would follow his debut as host of the Tony Awards with this unorthodox production, it seemed like a belated April Fool’s Joke. The explanation given was that the actor’s schedule made it impossible for him to appear in the play for more than a couple of nights and this was the only way to accommodate the large audiences clamoring to see it. The stadium also provided the opportunity for the show to be presented in the round, per Spacey's desire, as it was at the Old Vic.  

As both a huge Spacey fan and someone who’s been fascinated with Darrow my entire adult life, I was willing to give the actor the benefit of the doubt. This was, after all, the only chance to see a production for which I had considered trekking to England.

But the venue was a horrible choice. This reflective one-person drama requires intimacy. Yes, the experience was unique and qualified as an event. However, the choice did neither the play nor the actor any favors.

Under Thea Sharrock's direction, Spacey worked hard, very hard, to engage the audience despite the venue’s vastness. He often relocated to the outer floor areas via ramps extending to the sides. After intermission — another ill-advised idea, although it did provide the crowd the opportunity to purchase food, the smell of which was pervasive — he made his entrance from one of the upper sections. But his strenuous efforts felt silly for a drama in which Darrow reminisces in his office about such epochal cases as the Haymarket Riot, the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Leopold and Loeb murder. Spacey was supposed to be playing Darrow toward the end of his life, but he covered more ground in the auditorium than Mick Jagger during a Rolling Stones concert.

In the weeks leading up to the opening, Spacey told interviewers that the seating in the venue would be dramatically reduced and that large video screens would provide close-ups for audience members not near the action. At the opening night’s conclusion, he thanked everyone associated with the production for having helped make the stadium a viable space for theater, including those he admitted had thought he was out of his mind.

I was one of them, and my suspicions were unfortunately confirmed. Despite Spacey’s comments, there were audience members seated in the entire expanse of the stadium, which looked roughly a third full despite extensive discounting and many tickets given away to student groups. Although the audience was concentrated close to the elevated stage — placed on the center floor where the tennis court normally would be — there were people scattered throughout, including the nosebleed-inducing upper rafters. Without the video screens, Spacey’s appearance would have been merely a rumor for people seated there. Not that the screens proved much help. Located high in the upper corners, they added little intimacy save for occasional close-ups to remind folks in the cheap seats who they were watching.

Hearing was as much a problem as seeing. Although the actor’s voice was heavily amplified, there was a persistently annoying echo effect. And no one seemed to have thought about the stadium being located directly beneath the flight path of planes coming in and out of nearby LaGuardia Airport. My companion estimated that Spacey competed with the unholy aeronautical din roughly 20 times in the first act alone — not to mention the occasional loud droning sound emanating from the nearby Long Island Railroad.

It’s a shame, because the actor delivers a terrific performance. Yes, he pushes too hard at times, no doubt in great part due to the venue. And his occasional Southern drawl proves more reminiscent of his House of Cards character, Frank Underwood, than of Darrow, who was born in Ohio. But he nonetheless delivers a commanding turn that seemed to fully engage the audience, who responded with cheers whenever Darrow announced a dramatic court victory or made still-relevant comments about mass incarceration or the death penalty.

Since the performance was obviously filmed — the red lights of cameras going on and off was actually distracting — the production will presumably receive future exposure on cable or streaming services. But the best hope is that Spacey will return for an extended run of the play in a performance space more in harmony with the scale of the piece.

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