“People thought I was crazy to do this,” he told the audience after he took his final curtain call.
I still think he was.
To be sure, Kevin Spacey could do a good deal of business in the 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, steps away from the 1964-65 World’s Fair Unisphere. More people were probably at his opening than were at HAMILTON and DOLLY combined that same night.
However, full sections of seats had fewer than a score of people in them, and the upper sections were completely blocked off.
And that was as it should have been. David W. Rintels’ play CLARENCE DARROW involves thousands of words – so why should Spacey take it to a venue where everything he said echoed in the annoying way that announcements come across in sports stadia? There are times when the esteemed lawyer seemed a bit warm and fuzzy, but he was never as fuzzy as the sound.
So when Spacey wasn’t directly facing a section of spectators – and that had to be more than 90% of the time – what he said wasn’t easy to hear. Too often Spacey would come out with a line or sentiment that got a solid laugh from some sections, even most sections. But he never got a laugh from ALL sections, for there were many in which theatergoers were too busy asking anyone from seatmates to strangers “What did he say?”
Those noisy planes heard flying above the stadium, either going to or coming from LaGuardia, made matters worse. Spacey would often stop speaking when a Delta dawned in an effort to make us believe that this was an actual pause in Rintels’ script. At other times, he seemingly just said “To hell with it” and plowed on.
The four Jumbotrons strategically placed atop the arena must have helped those who read lips. Rock fans are used to these giant TV screens and accepted them long ago as the price to pay for the thrill of being in an arena with their heroes. The experience still comes off as more TV than live event, but never more than now when a play was at stake.
But where were those Jumbotrons when we really needed them? Every now and then, Spacey would hold up an 8-by-10 of a Darrow client. THIS is what should have been projected on the screen, but no. Only if you were within inches of the photo would you be able to see the person pictured.
And how close could one be to Spacey? Remember Max Bialystock’s claim that for “Theater in the Square nobody had a good seat”? This was all too true of Theater in the Rectangle. Unless you were sitting on a glorified folding chair on what is usually the tennis court, you were almost always far from the star.
Spacey often treated the audience as the “gentlemen of the jury” back in the turn of the century when indeed there were only gentlemen (well, men, anyway) in the jury. So Spacey did make an effort every few minutes to get close to people seated both on the court and on a level or two above. He even came into a row and sat for a few seconds between a man and a woman who couldn’t believe their good fortune to be thisclose to the man who’d won a Tony and two Oscars.
In getting to as many sections as he could, Spacey may well have wound up walking more than a half mile that theatergoers had to travel to get to the stadium from the subway. But most of the time, Spacey was so far away from everyone that he more resembled an ant climbing a rock.
What did we expect? Even when Henry Fonda did Rintels’ CLARENCE DARROW at the first and now-demolished Helen Hayes Theatre (895 seats) he looked a little lost among all that empty stage space. Theatergoers were lucky then and didn’t know it. To think that earlier in the week, Spacey was hosting the Tonys and must have felt that Radio City Music Hall was all too vast. Compared to this place, it was a chummy gazebo.
Too bad, for as the Jumbotrons revealed, Spacey was marvelous in the role. He had the right tousled Darrow look: the uncombed hair, the shirtsleeves and suspenders displayed (the latter at least until he put on a vest). He was passionate when telling of Darrow’s fights for strikers who endured everything from horrible working conditions to amputations as well. And what of the coal miners who worked 14 hours every day without even a single holiday a year?
We learned of people stuck in tenements who made so little that they were left with four cents a week after expenses. Often they lived only a block from the very well-to-do, but they felt as if they were hundreds of miles away in terms of money, prestige and power.
“I have done what I can to help those who can’t help themselves,” Spacey said, and we believed in this Darrow – just as we did when he muttered “History repeats itself – which is one of the things wrong with history.”
Many must have expected that the main event would be the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” that was so wonderfully dramatized by Lawrence and Lee in INHERIT THE WIND. It got its due, but greater attention was given to a far more controversial case: Leopold and Loeb’s murder of teens’ Bobby Frank. How would Darrow ever convince a jury to be lenient to his client Loeb? That would be too much to ask, but the defense Darrow did manage was shown to be masterful.
It was also a 12-hour long filibuster, which no one would want or expect here. CLARENCE DARROW didn’t start until 8:19 p.m. and called it an act at 9:03. Intermission lasted until 9:28, and Act Two wrapped up at 10:03. That’s fewer than 80 minutes of show time — although in some respects, the show at Arthur Ashe in those non-plush plastic seats seemed much longer.
Moral of the story? Render unto tennis the things that are tennis and to Broadway the things that are plays.