Kevin Spacey is a huge tennis buff.
“A nut,” he readily admits, noting he plays the game and attends matches at every opportunity.
But in a few weeks — and just days after hosting the Tony Awards broadcast — when the two-time Oscar winner and “House of Cards” star steps into the center of Arthur Ashe Stadium, home to the U.S. Open, he won’t be flaunting his forehand or backhand, or rushing the net. He’ll be serving up drama.
Spacey has dreamed up a first for Arthur Ashe, transforming the stadium in Flushing into a theater-in-the-round for a special two-nights-only performance of his acclaimed one-man show, “Clarence Darrow.”
“As crazy as this idea was, it struck me that in the worst seat in the house people pay good money to watch a little yellow ball go 120 mph across the court,” says Spacey, sitting in an office near Times Square to review his plans. “I’m bigger than a little yellow ball, and I don’t move nearly as fast.”
THE MAN, THE MYTH
Spacey may be as fond of Darrow, the civil rights and criminal defense attorney who became a legend a century ago, as he is of tennis.
He first slipped into the legal eagle’s suspenders in the 1991 TV movie “Darrow,” then again with the Old Vic Theatre Company in London (where he was artistic director) in a 2009 production of “Inherit the Wind” (which depicts the Scopes “Monkey” trial, and Darrow’s defense of a man arrested for teaching evolution). He later starred in David W. Rintels’ “Clarence Darrow,” directed by Thea Sharrock at the Old Vic in 2014 and in an encore performance in 2015. That was a one-man show staged in the round — neither of which he’d done before.
“There was nowhere to hide,” he says, smiling. “I really liked it.”
Spacey decided he wanted to bring the production to the United States. But where? Theaters built “in the round” — like the NYCB Theatre at Westbury — are hard to find, or too small, he notes.
But then, there he was at Arthur Ashe two years ago at the USU.S. Open, “and I suddenly went — ‘wait a minute,’ ” he recalls, slowly looking from left to right, as if in the stands again, then pointing. “Drama happens in this court all the time.”
STARTING FROM THE GROUND UP
After presenting the idea to U.S. Tennis Association officials, Spacey toured the facility last fall. And made quite an impression.
“He started climbing all over the place, to get a feel from a logistical standpoint of what everyone‘s perspective would be watching a show,” says Daniel Zausner, chief operating officer of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Sharrock was also on hand for the tour. “He’s just so . . . ,” she starts, then chuckles. “He’s so confident and willing to try new things. And so innately curious, both as a man and as a performer.”
Over the last few months, set, lighting and sound designers plucked from the concert world — who, unlike most theater pros, have experience in sports arenas — have been plotting the stadium’s transformation.
In the London shows, Spacey strolled up and down aisles as Darrow, engaging audience members, divvying them up into juries for his famous cases — Scopes, the Pullman strikes, the Leopold and Loeb murder.
“We wanted to break down the barrier between performer and audience, to make it a genuinely shared experience,” says Sharrock.
That goal remains. A round stage about 22 feet in diameter will be erected on the court, surrounded by 600 seats, with pathways and stairs that will allow Spacey to get closer to the crowd. Audience members can also occuipy the stadium’s courtside and loge levels, even the luxury suites(but not the nosebleed upper deck) and video screens will project the onstage action just like at a sporting event,
As for the new retractable roof, which debuted last year? It’ll be closed, says Zausner, so there’ll be no need to check the weather forecast.
NEW LOOK, NEW USES
This theatrical experiment is the first of many ways in which the USTA, now in the final stages of its $550 million renovation of Arthur Ashe and the surrounding tennis center, is hoping to diversify the kinds of events that take place there. Last month, Arthur Ashe hosted graduation ceremonies for FIT, John Jay College and The New School, and they’re considering other options, like hosting music festivals, says Zausner.
The U.S. Open attracts a wide range of viewers, he explains, from hardcore tennis fans to folks who’ve never picked up a racket. “Now this ‘Clarence Darrow’ event opens us up to a whole other audience who may have never been here before,” he says.
As for Spacey, he’s just happy to be able to remind people of Darrow.
“He had a brilliant, homespun logic and humor that I think made him very endearing,” says Spacey, noting how Darrow defended 102 men against the death penalty. “And not a single one hanged.”
This means he was able to convince both juries and judges “that no one should die, that we should have mercy,” says Spacey. “In a world of . . . increasingly difficult conflict, dividedness, anger, misunderstanding, violence . . . his is a really, really valuable voice to hear right now.”
Other famous Darrows
HENRY FONDA Starred in Rintels’ “Clarence Darrow” when it debuted on Broadway in 1974.
ORSON WELLES Played the defense lawyer in “Compulsion,” a 1959 film inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder trial.
SPENCER TRACY His searing portrayal of the man makes Stanley Kramer’s 1960 “Inherit the Wind” a must-see.
WHAT “Clarence Darrow”
WHEN | WHERE June 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Flushing
INFO Tickets, $89 to $350; call 800-982-2787 or visit ticketmaster.com