Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York, has long been the home of historic tennis matches, the back and forth of fierce competitors.
But audiences had a different courtside experience Thursday when Kevin Spacey brought his one-man show “Clarence Darrow” to Center Court — the first play ever performed in the U.S. Open’s biggest venue, for a limited two-night run.
Darrow, the pioneering American lawyer who argued key cases in the early 20th-century progressive era, was a master of the service game — service to the working man, to the oppressed and to reason itself despite the assault of well-heeled bullies and the prevailing prejudices of his time.
He was also not above chasing down hard-to-return shots — or to the occasional show-offy overhead smash.
And Spacey exploits the unconventional performance space, playing Darrow’s legal triumphs for applause and withstanding the distractions of passing airplanes (an intrusion familiar to U.S. Open players) cellphone-wielding audience members eager to capture the moment and an in-and-out sound system better suited to picking up the ptonk of felt-covered rubber balls than the human voice. The space remains more stadium than theater despite Spacey’s best efforts.
Of course, Spacey is no stranger to Darrow. He played the attorney in a 1991 PBS movie and again in a 2009 London production of “Inherit the Wind” about the infamous Scopes monkey trial. Then the actor wrapped his run as head of the U.K.’s Old Vic Theatre in 2015 with this production, a revival of David R. Rintels’ 1975 one-man play which had been a vehicle for Henry Fonda.
But though he matches Fonda in charisma and star quality, Spacey has a worldly edge that’s far from Fonda’s folksier persona. And he gamely ventures into the audience to maintain their attention through Rintels’ somewhat dated greatest hits collection of Darrow’s legal exploits. (The brief asides about Darrow’s personal life, like his failed first marriage and his “free love” dalliances during his more successful second marriage, could easily be gaveled out of the script on grounds of irrelevance.)
But it’s easy to see what appeals to Spacey about Darrow, an ahead-of-his-time figure whose passions and causes can seem as relevant as they did a century ago. “The policy of America seems to be building bigger and better prisons,” he says at one point, “and not bigger and better men.”
Delivering lines like that is the closest any actor is likely to get to an uncontested ace at center court.