Kevin Spacey has an enduring passion for Clarence Darrow, the Chicago lawyer famed for defending the defenseless and the undefendable. Championing the causes of union “anarchists” and transgressive disruptors (his most celebrated case was, arguably, the Scopes “monkey trial,” in which he represented a substitute teacher arrested for the crime of teaching Darwin in a Tennessee classroom) and, above all, the end of the legal murder known as capital punishment, Darrow was, and remains, a heroic figure in the  liberal pantheon, as meaningful today as he was over a century ago.

And Spacey has been paying tribute to him for more than two decades – from a 1991 telefilm and, in London, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind to Darrow, David Rintels’ hagiographic one-man show, written for Henry Fonda in 1974 and based on Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense. Two years ago, Spacey performed Darrow in his valedictory as head of the Old Vic in London.

Jeremy Gerard

On the heels of his strange outing as host of the 71st Tony Awards last Sunday, Spacey returns to the subject in the unlikeliest of settings: Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. Thursday night was the first of just two performances, the opener before an enthusiastic crowd of several thousand that encircled the setting in the central space – court to court, as Spacey put it.

It’s a charming and heartfelt performance. Under Thea Sharrock’s astute direction, Spacey enters lugging cartons of papers – legal briefs and memorabilia – from the wings, or somewhere off-court, into his oaky office – a desk, chair, leather club chair for lounging, and not much else in Butch Allen’s smartly simple setting. Rintels adheres to the tried-and-true basics of similar works (Mark Twain Tonight, The Belle of Amherst): engage the audience in a CV covering greatest hits, generously sprinkled with personal details – in Darrow’s case, his transformation from hired hand for the railroads to their nemesis and rise to prominence through high-profile cases that took him around the country and into the tabloid spotlight. Add in the failure of his first marriage after two decades, and the second, which included a foray into “free love.”

Bespectacled, with red braces holding up his trousers and a floppy Will Rogers-ish hairstyle famous from countless press photos, Spacey looks the part and attempts to make the space intimate, venturing along the ramps leading to the set and sitting next to patrons on occasion. But in the end, the venue defeats him and renders the experiment a near, if not total, failure. From the constant roar of  aircraft overhead, to the echo chamber that amplification only magnifies, to the in-the-round setting that gives us all-too-frequent views of the star’s backside, we have in the end to take as a matter of faith Spacey’s intimate abiding connection to his subject. A few moments of full-throttle emotion came across, but only because the actor happened to be standing a few feet from me in the good seats.

Fonda, it turns out, had the same problem back in 1974 at the Helen Hayes Theatre (which would soon be leveled to make way for the monstrous Marriott Marquis hotel). In The New York Times, the late Clive Barnes called Fonda’s performance “just plain wonderful.” But while praising John Houseman’s staging, Barnes added, “So far as the production is concerned, my one objection must be the awful overamplification. It is disconcerting to have an actor shuffling to the left with his back to you and having his voice coming out loud and clear from a loudspeaker to your far right.”

Plus ça change, as they say…