Set between 1960 and 1971, Nick Zagone's "David and Goliath in America" at the Road Theatre attempts to recapitulate the turbulent '60s while making a point about the erosion of individual rights and Constitutional prerogatives within the American legal system. The central character in Zagone's sprawling period epic is William Kunstler (Matt Gottlieb), the famed and fractious attorney who commenced his activist career in the heyday of the civil rights movement, defending Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow freedom fighters on the front lines of the Southern legal system.
However, the centerpiece and flash point of Zagone's play is the notorious 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven, those dissidents accused of deliberately disrupting the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Leading up to and during that trial, we see Kunstler hobnobbing with various '60s luminaries as he is swept away in the drug-infused tide of the times. As a character, Kunstler talks out of both sides of his mouth--risky business for a professional mouthpiece. At times, he's the indignant moral arbiter who passes sentence on a corrupt system, at others he's an ego-crazed publicity hound who sacrifices family and values in the pell-mell pursuit of fame.
Kunstler's own moral ambivalence may be precisely the point. If so, the shilly-shallying of Zagone's protagonist doesn't gibe well with the didactic closing arguments, in which Kunstler sweepingly impugns the American jurisprudence system, past and present. To his credit, Zagone attacks his subject with a single-minded intensity of purpose and considerable ardor--but his dramatic intentions remain about as cogent as a political discussion at a pot party.
With the exception of Kunstler--the game Gottlieb--Zagone's characters are unremittingly stereotypical, flower-power archetypes pitted against power structure "pigs." That may also be Zagone's point, and some of those stereotypes, particularly Sal Rendino's puckish Abbie Hoffman, are undeniably amusing. However, director Ken Sawyer never focuses the swirling kaleidoscope of Zagone's confused text. Full of self-righteous bluster on both sides of the political spectrum, Zagone's dialectic never takes shape. What does emerge, thanks in part to the colorful design elements, is a striking period portrait--a psychedelic poster of a bygone time.
"David and Goliath in America," the Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 17. $15. (818) 759-3382. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.