Many lawyers will remember 2009, a time marked by law firm layoffs en masse, as the year that the American financial system collapsed in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Henry “Hank” Morris — a lawyer turned political adviser turned private equity placement agent turned playwright — remembers 2009 as the year he was charged in a 123-count indictment by then-New York AG Andrew Cuomo for his role in the New York pension fund corruption scandal.
Accused of taking millions in kickbacks, Morris faced up to 25 years in prison and eventually took a deal, pleading guilty to one felony count under the Martin Act. He expected no jail time but much to his shock and dismay, he was sentenced to up to four years. Morris, who was later disbarred, spent more than two years in prison, and it was during that time that he conceived A Turtle on a Fence Post (“Turtle”), a musical comedy about politics, prison, power — and, of course, Cuomo.
“The play is based on true events, but it’s a fictionalized version of my journey and what happened to me and how it changed me,” Morris told Variety. “The principal antagonist in the play is a bullying governor named Andrew Cuomo.”
Turtle debuted for its opening last night at the 160-seat Theater 555 in Manhattan, but Morris isn’t referenced in the Playbill; instead, he’s listed as Prisoner #11R0731, the “name” he went by during his time behind bars that he’s now turned into his off-Broadway nom de plume. How could we tell that this is a show written by a former lawyer? This little disclaimer in the Playbill says it all.
Turtle… is a fictionalized story inspired by true events. Some names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty. The author does not deny, either directly or indirectly, any provision or statement of his Plea Agreement or Stipulation of Permanent Injunction with the State of New York, and any impression that either is without factual basis is unintended, disavowed and denied.
Over the course of two acts, the audience is treated to a lively jaunt through the ins and outs of criminal justice system and all of its many myriad flaws, from issues concerning racism to problems with parole and the need for reform.
Though Turtle may seem like a mere vanity project (after all, it’s advertised as telling “the inside story of a prominent New Yorker thrown into an unknown world by New York’s most powerful man”), the cast and crew are all top-notch. Directed by Gabriel Barre and choreographed by Kenny Ingram, with music by Austin Nuckols and lyrics by Lily Dwoskin, the show really packs a punch.
Garth Kravits stars as Hank Morris, and leads a company of fantastic performers, including David Aron Damane, Erik Gratton, Joanna Glushak, Kate Loprest, Josh Marin, Richard E. Waits, Janet Aldrich, Joel Newsome, and Robbie Serrano.
Loprest — who plays Hank’s ex-wife, Leslie, also a lawyer — breaks the fourth wall from time to time to describe all of the legal and financial aspects of the show that could otherwise confuse the audience. From due process to pension fund protocol to Cuomo’s alleged wish to claim a scalp (i.e., Hank’s) after Wall Street’s financial meltdown, Loprest is an absolutely essential castmember when it comes to learning the nitty-gritty details that sent Morris to prison in the first place.
Turtle takes a provocative look at not just politics and prison, but the politics of prison and the prison of politics. Filled with loads of humor only a lawyer could love — who doesn’t love the smell of yellow pads and blue ink? — and some incredibly poignant moments, this is a show that will be an unexpected treat for those who went into it believing that it was simply a Cuomo revenge ploy. A superbly talented cast with unbelievable singing and acting chops is what makes this show an emotional investment (as well as one of time; it’s almost three hours long).
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be shocked by how much you enjoyed the redemption tale of a white-collar criminal who admittedly “took advantage” of the system by using his legal and financial smarts but now seeks to change it.
In a public statement in the show’s Playbill, Morris says the New York parole system “cries out for reform.” Will the media attention that his fictionalized account has received be able to swing the pendulum in favor of such reform? One can hope.
Turtle will play a limited 10-week engagement through Sunday, January 2, 2022.
Staci Zaretsky is a senior editor at Above the Law, where she’s worked since 2011. She’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to email her with any tips, questions, comments, or critiques. You can follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.