22 July 2017

'A Doll’s House, Part 2'


Of all the non-musical plays on Broadway this season, the one that seemed to have gotten the most hype, including buzz surrounding its eight Tony Award nominations, is Lucas Hnath’s Ibsen sequel, A Doll’s House, Part 2.  This prompted Diana, my frequent theater companion, to want to see it.  Because of reports that plays weren’t doing very well at the box office this season—several had already announced early closing dates off disappointing results at the Tonys—we talked about going up to the TKTS booth to try to score seats.  This became more imperative once the Times announced that Laurie Metcalf, the Best Actress Tony-winner for the show, would be leaving it on 23 July.  So Friday night, 14 July, after passing on our original idea of going on Thursday because of the hot, steamy, and stormy weather prediction, we met at Duffy Square at 6 p.m. and got excellent half-price tickets for the John Golden.  We had a nice dinner at Marseilles on 9th Avenue (good food, but very loud—and we forgot it was Bastille Day, so it was also crowded), then walked back over to 8th and 45th for the 8 o’clock performance.  

(There was a really long line that stretched all the way to 8th Avenue, but I didn’t believe it was for DH2: the crowd was wrong—too young and diverse—and, as I said, plays aren’t drawing this season by all reports.  It turned out not to be for the Ibsen sequel, but I never confirmed what the people were lined up for.  The theater next to the Golden, the Bernard B. Jacobs, is showing Bandstand, which didn’t get very good reviews and was nominated for only three Tonys (winning only one), so I didn’t figure that’s where the crowd was heading.  But the next house east, the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is playing Come From Away, nominated for seven Tonys, including best musical, and winning for best direction of a musical.  It’s gotten a lot of hype and is family-friendly, so I’m guessing it’s attracting a long line of theatergoers.  That’s my story anyway.)

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House famously ends with Nora leaving her husband and children so as to find herself, rather than be defined by her roles as a wife and mother (as well as another reason that doesn’t enter into the sequel—but which I’ll discuss in a bit).  When she slammed the door to the “doll house” and her “doll life,” many theatergoers in 1879 (and even later) were incensed by the blunt way it questions the conventional roles of men and women in the male-dominated society of 19th-century Norway (and much of the rest of the world as well), and the play caused a flash flood of controversy.  (There were riots when the play was published in Copenhagen, where it also premièred soon after.)  A Doll’s House, Part 2 begins with a knock at that famed door: Nora (Laurie Metcalf – Tony; 2017 Drama Desk Award nominee for Outstanding Actress in a Play) has returned after 15 years of absence and silence.

Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell – 2017 Tony nominee for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play; 2017 Drama Desk Award nominee for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play), former nursemaid to Nora’s now-adult children, answers the door and is stunned by the person she sees.  Nora playfully asks Anne Marie to guess where she might have been for the past decade and a half.  The former nanny says that everyone thought she’d died—or worse, become a prostitute or, perhaps worse still, an actress.  (What became of Nora after slamming that door in 1879 has been imagined before.  Larry Grossman and the book-and-lyrics team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote a musical sequel in 1982 called A Doll’s Life which lasted five performances on Broadway under Harold Prince’s direction.)  Anne Marie guesses from Nora’s attire that her old mistress has fared well, but can’t imagine how she could have managed the harsh realities of a woman alone in society.  Nora explains that she’s become a successful author, but under a pen name, publishing divisive books that argue against the institution of marriage. 

A prominent judge whose wife left him after reading one of Nora’s books has learned who the writer is, however, and that she’s been living as a single woman while in fact still being married to Torvald, a situation that’s improper, and in some cases criminal, in Norway at the time.  Nora discovers that Torvald never filed their divorce papers as he had promised when she left and the judge now threatens to expose her and destroy her new independent life.  Nora’s come back to get her husband to sign the divorce papers—only a man can do so at will; a woman has to prove some kind of mistreatment or misbehavior—and Nora asks Anne Marie for help finding a way to solve her problem if Torvald doesn’t agree.  They are interrupted when Torvald (Chris Cooper – 2017 Tony nominee for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play) arrives unexpectedly to collect some papers he forgot that morning.  He’s stunned when he sees who is sitting in his front room and he sends Anne Marie away so he can talk with his long-missing wife.  He refuses to file  the divorce papers because, among other excuses, he’s allowed everyone to believe Nora had died and that he’d been a grieving widower.  To admit now that he’d been lying for 15 years would leave him open to public ridicule and opprobrium, costing him his social standing and, likely, his job at the bank.

It’s clear Nora will have to solve her own problem, and Anne Marie tells her the best way to find a solution is to get in touch with her daughter, Emmy.  Nora has avoided recontacting her children, feeling they’re better off not knowing she’d come back into their lives, but the old nanny insists it’s the only way she can get what she’s come for.  Emmy (Condola Rashad – 2017 Tony nominee for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play), a small child when her mother left and doesn’t really have any memories of her, arrives and makes several suggestions for solving Nora’s dilemma—including capitalizing on the general belief that she’s dead: Emmy volunteers to surreptitiously file a forged death certificate to make her death “official.”  She’ll even fill it out and sign it.  Nora, sensibly, refuses Emmy’s offer.  But when Torvald returns, badly beaten by a stranger on the street, he tells Nora that he had second thoughts and filed the divorce documents; he hands her a copy of the papers.  Surprisingly, Nora rejects Torvald’s gesture and tears up the document and declares that she’ll deal with the judge’s threat herself.  She gathers her belongings and once again, leave the Helmer house.

Hnath uses sparse but charged and often anachronistic dialogue in order to comment (says the promos of South Coast Rep) on modern marriage and relationships, distilling the story to its central characters (the two Helmer sons are merely mentioned, and, Dr. Rank having died at the end of DH1, Nils Krogstad, Christina Linden, and maid Ellen, are not part of DH2) and setting up a chain of highly fraught two-character confrontations.  In each one, Nora gets an earful of what her decision back a decade-and-a-half has visited upon each of those left behind.  Each character has her or his say about her decision and what she can or should do about her current dilemma.  The play’s intended to be a stylized exploration of the power conflicts in marriage, using 19th-century Norway as a metaphor for the modern West, and the complications that come with navigating entrenched resentments.  

Hnath, 37, was born in Orlando, Florida, but moved to New York City in 1997 to study pre-med.  He switched to dramatic writing at Tisch School of the Arts’ Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2001, and a Master of Fine Arts in 2002.  A member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre, he’s been a resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2011 and teaches dramatic writing at NYU.

I don’t know Hnath’s work at all; A Doll’s House, Part 2 is the first of his works of which I’d even heard.  In American Theatre, Diep Tran, an arts journalist and associate editor at AT, asserts that “Hnath aims to disorient his audience so they are induced to think hard about the work they just saw, even after they’re left the theatre.”  DH2 suggests there’s some truth to that statement.  Hnath explains, “I’m interested in unresolved chords because of what they do to the head afterward.”  His influences include Richard Foreman, the Wooster Group, and Caryl Churchill . . . and Disney—“for inspiring his love of the artificial and fabricated”: “I love good gimmick,” the playwright grins.  (He grew up seven minutes away from Walt Disney World.  One of his plays is named for the famous animator.)  In an expression that could come from Bertolt Brecht (whom the dramatist doesn’t name as an influence), Hnath says that in his plays, “the sound of thinking should be louder than the sound of emotion.  I want the audience to engage with the thinking, with the reasoning.” 

Hnath’s play Red Speedo, a play about the conflict between Olympic hopes and the ethically challenged world of commerce, was presented Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016 and won the OBIE Award for Playwriting and for the performance of cast member Lucas Caleb Rooney.  Other plays include Hillary and Clinton, The Christians, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, Isaac’s Eye, and Death Tax, produced by such companies as Ensemble Studio Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons, Soho Repertory Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville (Humana Festival of New Plays), Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, and London’s Royal Court, garnering Hnath acclaim and several awards and prizes for his writing.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 was commissioned by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, where it was workshopped (with actors who gave Hnath input).  Hnath says, however, that “for a while” he’d wanted “to write a sequel to ‘A Doll’s House’” and began working on a script in 2014.  The playwright did research into the divorce laws of 19th-century Norway and read books on Ibsen and marriage.  He even contacted feminist scholars, some of whose names are listed in the program as “Advisors to Mr. Hnath.” 

Directed at SCR by Shelley Butler, the play ran in April 2017.  DH2 opened on Broadway with a different cast on 27 April 2017 after previews which began on 30 March 2017 at the John Golden Theatre (the productions overlapped, probably to get DH2 on Broadway in time for Tony eligibility); it’s currently scheduled to close on 7 January 2018.  (The production has already had one extension from 23 July, and there will be several cast changes at that date: Metcalf, Cooper, and Rashad will be leaving the show, to be replaced by Julie White, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Erin Wilhelmi, respectively)  The New York production is Hnath’s Broadway debut.

DH2, which runs an intermissionless hour-and-twenty minutes (the listing says 1½ hours, but it’s shorter than that), was pretty packed anyway, even though there wasn’t any line outside.  The audience was also very vocal—lots of big laughs.  Nonetheless, both Diana and I didn’t think the play (or the performances) lived up to the hype.  Neither of us could figure out why Lucas Hnath even wrote it; there didn’t seem to be any point aside from messing with a classic.  (The tech director in the theater program where I got my MFA called this kind of production—spotlighting some attention-grabbing gambit that has no justification other than to show that you thought it up—“Hamlet on roller-skates.”)

I have a problem with “sequels” of existing material to start with—it always seems lazy and unimaginative, and then the writer’s stuck with pre-existing conditions (if you’ll pardon the use of the phrase just now) that she or he either has to twist and manipulate to make them accommodate her or his “new” ideas, or ignore completely so they don’t interfere with the new plot or theme.  Then, if the original piece was successful—and we can pretty much agree that Ibsen’s DH fulfills that criterion—it probably pretty much says all that needs to be said on the subject.  In that case, why not write a new original play?  Unless, of course, you can’t—you’re not imaginative enough to come up with your own idea, like an art copyist or forger who can’t paint something original.  

So, that’s my prejudice going in.  And, sure enough, Hnath does ignore an (important, I believe) aspect of DH1 in order to make his play go.  (I won’t say ‘work’ because I don’t believe it does.)  In DH2, Nora has left Torvald and her children 15 years earlier solely because she feels trapped in her marriage (which Nora 2.0 says is always a snare for women, especially in a society that loads the deck against them anyway).  She left so that she could become an independent woman and live her life on her own terms, not as a reflection or appendage of her husband (or father, or the men who lead the community, like a pastor).  That makes her a selfish woman; her motives were entirely about her and her ego.

But in DH1, Nora 1.0 leaves not so much—or at least not only—because she wants to be independent.  In fact, in Ibsen’s play, she doesn’t mention that as a reason, though she does say that her marriage to Torvald is demeaning and false.  The reason Nora leaves her home—and, most importantly, why she leaves her children behind—has to do with something people, including Ibsen, actually believed in the mid-19th century; it was considered a scientific fact, and it’s all through A Doll House (and it’s in The Master Builder and, especially, Ghosts).  Nora believes that her crime (forging the loan document that precipitates the plot of Doll House) is a sign of moral corruption and that, first, moral corruption will have a physical manifestation (which is why Rank is dying of a spinal disease—because he lived a dissolute life as a young man) and, more important, that that condition will be passed on to the corrupt person’s children (which is why Oswald Alving in Ghosts has inherited his father’s syphilis—even though we know today a child can’t inherit syphilis from a father).  So, in Ibsen, Nora doesn’t leave for selfish reasons, but altruistic ones: she’s afraid if she stays, she’ll infect her children with her condition—so she has to leave the house and leave them behind to save them.  (She says to Anne Marie, among other instances, that the children will be better off without her.  I talk about much of this is my report on DH1 in “TFANA’s Scandinavian Rep,” 13 June 2016.)

In order to make DH2 happen, Hnath can’t bring any of this up.  Besides cluttering up the simple plot (which he then proceeds to complicate with add-ons contributed by each character to make Nora’s contrived problem insoluble), it would make Nora too noble for his purposes.  (I suspect it would also be too hard to explain and justify to a 21st-century audience without a lot of historical exposition.  Ibsen had Rank, Christina, and Krogstad as test subjects and models of this moral-corruption theory—which in 1879 was common belief anyway—and those characters don’t exist in DH2.  Although, Nora and Torvald’s daughter, Emmy, comes up with a solution to Nora’s dilemma which would require the daughter to forge an official document, repeating her mother’s DH1 crime.)  Aside from a kind of dramaturgical dishonesty, this omission makes Hnath’s play one-dimensional (which DH1 decidedly isn’t).  

In the end, A Doll’s House, Part 2 isn’t satisfying dramatically—and I haven’t even mentioned Sam Gold’s directorial idiosyncrasies (which fortunately don’t rise, or fall, to the level of his Glass MenagerieGott sei Dank—see my blog report of 8 April).  I also haven’t commented on the affected acting exhibited, especially by Metcalf, which I assume was also at Gold’s behest and guidance.  (The language in DH2 is not only contemporary to the 21st century, but it’s fairly vulgar—lots of F-bombs.  I wonder if Nora and and Anne Marie in the 1890’s would even know the words they use.  (The play is set 15 years after Nora walked out, making it around 1894.)  In contrast to the acting style and language, the costumes are late-19th-century; the set is chronologically ambiguous since there’s almost no furniture in the room—just a small table (on which sits a modern box of tissues!) and 2 pairs of chairs which looked like mid-20th-century “Dansk Design” Scandinavian modern.  (The program doesn’t specify a date for the setting, but the dialogue refers several times to the 15 years since Nora left.)

Continuing from the brief sketch of the set above, scenic designer Miriam Buether devised the most spartan of stage environments since director Gold’s almost-bare Glass Menagerie set.  A minimalist take on the traditional box set, the Helmer apartment has three egg-shell colored wall with elaborate moldings giving it a vaguely 18th-century look, accented with only huge (about 10 feet tall), brown double doors (yes, that door—the door whose slam was heard round the world).  There are no decorations whatsoever on the walls, and the furniture, as I noted, is sparse and anachronistic.  There’s also one large potted plant next to the doors, and all of these set pieces are against the walls so that the whole center of the stage is empty—except when the characters move the chairs in now and then. 

At  preset—there’s no front drape currently in use at the Golden—an immense lighted sign greets the arriving audience, lighted yellow letters spelling out “A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2” hanging from the flyspace—just in case someone wandered in looking for some other show, I guess.  As the play progresses and each character gets a turn in the spotlight with Nora, large projected signs with his or her name are cast onto one of the blank set walls, explaining why they’re so white . . . and blank—all for the sake of four effects of a few seconds each.  Now, there’s a design coup!  (The lights were designed by Jennifer Tipton, a 2017 Tony nominee for Best Lighting Design of a Play, and the projection design was from Peter Nigrini.)  David Zinn’s costumes (he’s a 2017 nominee for Best Costume Design of a Play for the Tonys), as I indicated, are perfectly period-appropriate for the 1890s—though Houdyshell wears a cap that I love: it makes Anne Marie look like something from a Dutch Masters’ painting from a couple of centuries earlier.  (The production’s hair and makeup were designed by Luc Verschueren and Campbell Young Associates.)

I don’t usually have much to say about the music a production uses during scene changes or as the audience settles into its seats, but I have a few words this time.  Leon Rothenberg’s sound design includes preset music that didn’t seem to have any relation to the play or its themes.  (It was by female rockers, however.)  Not only is it rock ’n’ roll, but it’s loud and insistent; in fact, it seemed to increase in volume as curtain time approached.  Now, I’m from the rock generation, so rock ’n’ roll music doesn’t bother me in principle, but Diana never misses a chance to inform me that she dislikes that music so this exercised her from the moment we walked into the Golden Theatre auditorium.  It may even have increased her displeasure at the performance as a whole—or, at least, set her up for disappointment.  I have no idea, though, what the purpose of this anachronistic music or the degree to which it was amped up is with respect to the show.  I have to assume that Rothenberg didn’t make these decisions in his own, any more than Buether came up with the scenic design without input from Gold, so I put much of the responsibility for this choice on the director.

Gold’s directing, as I’ve hinted, is in line with what I’ve come to expect of him: pared down, minimally evocative of period or milieu, focused on the actors and the acting.  This apparently lines up as well with Hnath’s dramaturgy.  I’ve seen three previous productions of Gold’s, including one Encores! concert presentation (The Cradle Will Rock, report posted on 1 August 2013; the others were Annie Baker’s John, 1 September 2015, and The Glass Menagerie, 8 April 2017).  (Guest blogger Kirk Woodward reported on a Gold production of Look Back in Anger on 28 February 2012.)  John, of which I had other complaints, as an outlier: a generally conventional staging on a set that was so far from minimalist that it was positively cluttered.  Even the Encores! Cradle, however, was more sparsely staged than usual for that stripped-down series.  The granddaddy of Gold productions, though, was the recent Tennessee Williams classic, The Glass Menagerie.  Unlike that reinterpretation, Gold didn’t violate the text of Hnath’s play along with his revisionist setting.  Of course, I don’t know how much the director influenced the playwright with regard to revisions during the rehearsals.  (According to the few reviews of the SCR mounting I skimmed, there seem to have been some design changes, at least—the entire production team was different in California; I can’t tell about text alterations.)

I hinted earlier that the acting in A Doll’s House, Part 2 is “affected.”  I don’t mean to suggest that it’s some form of “eccentric” acting, something highly stylized and choreographed.  But the actors, especially Metcalf, moved and posed in ways that called to mind 20th-  and 21st-century people more than women and men from the 1890s.  Now, Gold and Hnath’s intention clearly isn’t to update Ibsen’s play—at least not entirely—since they made a stab a dressing the characters in period-invoking clothes.  From what I’ve learned of Hnath’s playwriting, he mixes contemporary elements with period or regional ones because he wants to conflate the past and the present so that the audience thinks about both at the same time.  Some of Hnath’s language isn’t out of place for the play’s period—which makes the anachronistic expressions all the more noticeable. 

For the same reason, the modern movements and gestures of the actors jar and call attention to themselves.  This goes as well for the frequency with which actors, again particularly Metcalf, come down to the edge of the stage to deliver speeches.  They’re not addressing the audience—their focus is somewhere on the back wall of the house and the speech is more like old-fashioned soliloquies—so neither Diana nor I could see what this gambit was about.  Is it Gold’s intention to  make these actions self-referential, to shine a spotlight on his own directing?  Is it just the director’s ego—that Hamlet-on-roller-skates impetus?  (If this is so, I wonder how Hnath feels about his collaborator’s efforts.)

As Torvald, Chris Cooper is pretty much wasted in this production.  This isn’t the actor’s fault, and not so much Gold’s, either, as Hnath has written Nora’s estranged husband as a sort of human backboard: he’s there for Nora to knock forehands against and to send them back just as hard.  His decision to acquiesce to Nora’s request in the end is almost a dues ex machina and seems like a playwright’s decision so he can end a play which would otherwise go round and round endlessly.  Cooper does well enough with the assignment, but he can’t make this Torvald an interesting or engaging figure.  (To be fair, Ibsen’s Torvald isn’t all that sparkling a role, either—but we’re not talking about that Torvald.)  In the vicinity of Metcalf’s Nora and Houdyshell’s Anne Marie, he can’t help but shrink in stage stature—which is ironic considering how important he is in all their lives. 

Houdyshell’s former nanny is doughty and commanding in her own way—a servant who knows all the secrets and all the hot buttons.  I couldn’t tell if it’s the actress or the character who was uncomfortable with Hnath’s obscenities, but it seemed odd coming out of her mouth.  (Not a problem with Metcalf’s Nora, except for the matter of its anachronism.)  She raised Nora, then her children, and now she looks after Torvald, alone in the house.  No wonder Nora comes to her for help—even if she can’t provide it.  (That’s not terribly surprising: Hnath devised a problem for Nora that has no solution.  It’s part of his dramaturgy and he fulfills his mission here.)  Houdyshell’s Anne Marie is a sort of an early-21st-century vision of a late-19th-century servant in the mold of the mid-20th-century housekeeper Hazel played by Shirley Booth on TV—the one that keeps everything spinning in the right direction and everyone on the right path.

Daughter Emmy is only slightly more integral to the set-up than Torvald, and Condola Rashad (daughter of actress Phylicia Rashad) makes the most of the role.  She has the irrepressibility of a teenager and the imagination of her mother, the writer (though Emmy says she seldom reads).  Her outlandish plan to solve her mother’s problem has all the hallmarks of an adolescent who hasn’t developed impulse control yet.  (Emmy, the youngest Helmer child, would, in fact, probably still be a teen.  Rashad is actually 30, so there’s little doubt this is acting.)  If anything, she’s too much a modern teenager—but that would be Hnath’s and Gold’s plan, I’m sure.

That brings us to Laurie Metcalf and Nora.  Metcalf’s performance is the showcase for Hnath’s and Gold’s theatrical styles, which largely seem to come together in A Doll’s House, Part 2.  She’s a mix of contemporary womanhood and 19th-century proto-feminism. I can’t say she made it work for me, but Metcalf concocts a blend of the period-appropriate and the anachronistic that almost seems natural.  Perhaps blend is the wrong image—it’s more like a mosaic or a patchwork quilt: the elements remain discrete but form an integrated picture.  Metcalf’s Nora exists in two universes at the same time: ours and Hnath’s and Gold’s vision of Ibsen’s—but the modern one dominated.  It wasn’t a thoroughly satisfying performance for me (or Diana, from her reaction), but it was an accomplishment as an actor.

Ninety percent of Show-Score’s 59 published reviews (as of 17 July) were positive, leaving 7% mixed notices and 3% negative.  The average score on the site was 83 with a high score of 100 (Front Row Center), followed by one 98 and six 95’s (including Time Out New York); the lowest rating was a single 30 (Wall Street Journal), backed by a single 45--the site’s only two negative notices.  My review round-up will cover 27 publications.

In the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, Max McGuinness declared that “A Doll’s House, Part 2 doesn’t have anything particularly original to say on the subject” of “[l]ove and marriage [as] a casualty-strewn battlefield.”  (The FT reviewer added, “That old controversy acquires contemporary resonance thanks to the profanity-strewn American vernacular.”)  “A puckish Laurie Metcalf invests an opening tirade on this theme with plenty of abrasive charm while Jayne Houdyshell offers barbed rejoinders as the long-suffering maid Anne Marie,” acknowledged McGuinness, but the play “soon runs out of ideas after the rhetorical fireworks of Nora and Anne Marie’s initial exchanges.”  Cooper’s “ponderous Torvald . . . is tepid” and Rashad’s Emmy “gets plenty of laughs” though her “dialogue sounds overwritten.”  The review-writer also complained about Gold’s “decontextualised staging, which blends period costumes with a stripped-down, nondescript set resembling a business hotel or conference centre.”  McGuinness’s main objection, however, was that the “sense of speechifying artifice frequently resurfaces throughout Hnath’s play, which fails to replicate Ibsen’s talent for integrating ideas and exposition.”  He warned that Hnath has “cannily preserved” Ibsen’s “most famous title, thereby appealing to theatregoers who might not usually be drawn to a piece of new writing.” 

Alexis Soloski of the U.S. edition of the Guardian characterized DH2 as “less a conventional sequel than a thought experiment,” adding, “Luckily, Hnath . . . is no mean thinker.”  Soloski continued, “Provocatively, the play functions as both homage and riposte, casting a critical eye on Nora’s choices and trying to wrestle with their consequences.”  Suggesting that the play’s description might “make the play sound rather dry and intellectual,” the Guardian reviewer asserted, “It isn’t.  Hnath writes fast, vibrant dialogue—much of it in a salty, modern vernacular—and while Gold inserts a few postmodern touches, he mostly pushes the actors onstage and has them talk things over with hustle and vigor.”  Soloski dubbed the cast “excellent, particularly Metcalf,” adding special praise for her iniial entrance, “a gripping concatenation of anticipation, anxiety, pleasure, nostalgia, and probably some other things, too.”  Metcalf “nearly makes you forget than the play succeeds far better as a vivid and playful philosophical exercise than as a character-driven drama,” she affirmed, observing, though, that “Ibsen managed both, but that’s a high bar.”  Soloski quipped that “most audience nails will go unbitten,” but concluded, “This shouldn’t put ticket buyers off.  The play’s sophisticated arguments about what we owe to ourselves and to each other, about how liberation can become illiberal are welcome mat enough.”  Her final recommendation?  “Step in.”

In the New York Times, Ben Brantley, dubbing A Doll’s House, Part 2 a “smart, funny and utterly engrossing new play,” declared that Hnath’s “audaciously titled” work “features a magnificent Laurie Metcalf leading one of the best casts in town.”  The Timesman reported that Metcalf’s performance is “exquisitely poised between high comedy and visceral angst” and Houdyshell is “fabulous as usual.”  Far from being “just a bright quick-sketch concept” or “hubristic project with the humility and avidity of an engaged Everyreader,” DH2 “gives vibrant theatrical life to the conversations that many of us had after first reading or seeing its prototype.”  Advising that Hnath’s post-modernities “may sound too wise guy for words,” Brantley assured us that the playwright “has a deft hand for combining incongruous elements to illuminating ends.”  What the Times reviewer asserted Hnath has written isn’t “a feminist play.  Or an anti-feminist play”—it’s “an endlessly open debate.  Which for the record never feels like a debate.”  In Gold’s “fine, sensitive production” with “the emotional commitment of the cast,” the “unexpectedly rich sequel” depicts a cast of characters, each of whom “is very much a living individual—a solipsist, as we all are, with his or her own firm and self-serving view of things.”

Terry Teachout started his review of A Doll’s House, Part 2 in the Wall Street Journal by stating: “Hugh Kenner defined conceptual art as that which, once described, need not be experienced.  Lucas Hnath’s ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ comes perilously close to filling that bill.”  He described the production as “90 melodramatic minutes” which Gold has directed “with ostentatious austerity.”  I generally dislike quoting a review at length, but in this instance Teachout (whose notice received Show-Score’s lowest rating) lays out his whole argument in a couple of paragraphs:

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” is an exercise in what I call the theater of concurrence, whose practitioners assume that their audiences already agree with them about everything.  The success of such plays is contingent on the exactitude with which they tell their viewers what they want to hear.  To be sure, Mr. Hnath flirts with ambiguity and crams his script with attempts at ironic comedy, all of it tiresomely facetious (Nora’s aging ex-housekeeper, played by Jayne Houdyshell, says “shit” and “f—” even though it’s 1894).  Nevertheless, we are never allowed to seriously doubt that Nora was right to abandon her family for the sake of her own happiness.  The result is a poorly crafted play—I can’t remember when I last sat through a lumpier exposition—that is not a risky challenge to established belief but a collective celebration of an article of firmly settled faith.  “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is tensionless: We know going in what we’re supposed to think of Nora, and we know we won’t be asked to change our minds about her.  That’s why it’s being performed on Broadway by Ms. Metcalf, Mr. Cooper, Ms. Houdyshell and Condola Rashad instead of in a black-box theater by nobody in particular.

Teachout also has complaints about the Ibsen original which impact his view of DH2:

Incidentally, when did you last see “A Doll’s House, Part 1”?  It hasn’t played Broadway for 20 years, and there’s a reason for that, which is that it’s a bomb that’s already gone off, a moldering landmark whose time has come and gone.  We live with its consequences—we know them well—but the play itself is a turgid piece of bourgeois-baiting that is now of purely antiquarian interest.  As the saying goes, it’s history.  This matters because “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is a sequel, one that makes sense on its own but is still vampirishly dependent on Ibsen’s play for its dramatic effect.  If you’ve never heard Nora slam that famous door, then you won’t hear its metaphorical echo in Mr. Hnath’s play.  All that he offers in its place is the droning therapy-speak of a writer who doesn’t know what to do with words other than line them up in a row: “Once I could hear my voice, I could think of things that I wanted that had nothing to do with what anyone else wanted.”

(I should remark here that, as ROTters know—and as I noted earlier—I have seen a recent revival of DH1: at Theatre for a New Audience in June 2016.  I don’t share Teachout’s disparagement of the play.)  Theatergoers who attended A Doll’s House, Part 2, the WSJ reviewer asserted, “got their money’s worth,” saving lavish praise for Cooper’s work.  He compared Hnath’s play, however, with the current musical Waitress, observing that DH2 “is the ‘serious’ counterpart of ‘Waitress,’ which preaches pretty much the same sermon, only with songs and dances added.”  Teachout’s final word on the play: “Yes, ‘Waitress’ is as thuddingly predictable as ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2,’ but at least you can tap your foot to it.”

In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz labeled DH2 a “compact and provocative comedy” which “pick’s up” after Ibsen’s original “[w]hether or not you think the story needed to continue.”  He asserted that the “fast-[p]aced” production, “which plays Nora’s situation very much as comedy,” is Hnath’s “best work to date.”  The characters each raise “serious subjects” which “aren’t new but presented in intriguing ways.”  In Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” in Long Island’s Newsday, she dubbed the play a “[d]azzling, droll sequel to Ibsen’s ‘Doll’s House’” and pronounced it “a psychologically serious, deliciously amusing tragicomedy” which ended the current Broadway season “with dazzling theatrical fireworks.”  The production is  “surprisingly breezy” in Gold’s “stark, audacious, daringly acted” staging.  Praising the cast for “trenchant” performances, Winer also touted Hnath’s “twisty, devious plot.” 

For New York, Jesse Green (in his last review for the magazine), labeled DH2 a “thrilling imaginary sequel” to Ibsen’s original, “at its core a public forum on questions of marriage that still bedevil us.”  Green assured us, “Though he is deeply interested in argument . . . Hnath provides enough ingenious structure to allow A Doll’s House, Part 2 to function quite smoothly as an often hilarious puzzle drama.”  Complimenting the whole cast, Green praised Metcalf and Houdyshell especially.  Further, he argued, “Hnath is not using the preexisting characters and their backstory (let alone the real woman — a friend — on whom Ibsen based the tale) as ways of avoiding having to create something original; rather, they are springboards to something very new indeed.”  In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold asserted that the play’s “deadpan title announces both Hnath’s serious intent and his flat-affect postmodern comic sense.”  Feingold, however, confirmed, “There will be no fancy writing here, and no self-consciously spoofy striving for laughs. . . .  Hnath also eschews any updating.”  The Voice reviewer found the script “both powerfully dense and elegantly sparse.  Ideas seem to shoot off in all directions.”

Dubbing the play “invigorating,” the New Yorker’s Hilton Als described A Doll’s House, Part 2 as “an irresponsible act—a kind of naughty imposition on a classic, which, in addition to investing Ibsen’s signature play with the humor that the nineteenth-century artist lacked, raises a number of questions.”  Als affirmed, “To go from dreaming about Nora’s life to writing it required a leap of faith—an author’s faith in his own imagination—and that’s the kind of energy that jumps out at you from Hnath’s play.”  It’s “a kind of metafiction,” the New Yorker writer asserted.  “‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ is a play about a play, and about men looking at women—though not condescendingly, or with anything approaching lust and, thus, the idea of possession.”  Als praises the women in the cast, but laments that “Cooper’s passive-aggressive energy, sublime on film, gets swallowed up by the powerful actresses around him.” 

In Time Out New York, Adam Feldman described DH2 as “lucid and absorbing” and a “taut sequel” which “is about airing things out.”  The new play is “[m]odern in its language, mordant in its humor and suspenseful in its plotting,” continued the man from TONY, and Gold’s “exemplary direction keeps you hanging on each turn of argument and twist of knife.”  He concluded, “Everything about the production works. It’s a slam dunk.”  Maya Stanton of Entertainment Weekly observed, “You wouldn’t think that a continuation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House . . . would be funny, but humor abounds in playwright Lucas Hnath’s creative sequel.”  Gold’s direction has “a natural quality” and “the actors toss off their lines with a modern familiarity and nonchalance that belies the hard work behind such a comfort level.”  Calling the play “[l]iterary fanfic of the highest caliber,” Stanton asserted that the play “is an irreverent yet respectful take on the source material.”  She objected that the script “may rely a little heavily on wink-wink, nod-nod references to the future that have yet to be realized,” but “it becomes clear that this is not your grandmother’s Ibsen.” 

The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney dubbed DH2 a “spry deconstruction” and a “terrific new play,” reporting that Nora 2.0’s entrance “bristles with tension, provocation and unexpected subversive humor.”  Hnath’s “pithy sequel,” his “audacious Broadway debut,” “delivers explosive laughs while also posing thoughtful questions about marriage, gender inequality and human rights that reverberate across the almost 140 years.”  Gold has staged the “taut, 90-minute” one-act play “with stylish austerity and not an ounce of flab.”  It’s “as much an ingenious elaboration and deconstruction of A Doll's House as a sequel, and it stands perfectly well on its own.”  The “series of two-character exchanges,” Rooney affirmed, “have the energy of a vigorous squash match.”  The playwright, said the HR reviewer, “shows a superb knack for balancing humor—from the droll to the uproarious—with serious issues.”  The writer’s “lightness of touch . . . carries through”  to the performances and the director’s “zesty staging.”  In Variety, Marilyn Stasio called Nora’s return a “dramatic parlor trick” and observed, “Despite the modern idiom that Hnath slings around with gleeful humor, it’s amazing how women’s lives haven’t changed.”  Stasio asserted that DH2 “isn’t really a play, but a very funny and quite biting manifesto” and expressed “hope . . . that Hnath will put Nora’s futuristic views into some dramatic context.”  Though she had praise for all the cast, the Variety review-writer declared, “Metcalf is amazing.” 

On WNBC, the network-owned television outlet in New York City, Robert Kahn felt that Hnath is “mining . . . pain for comic gold in a star-studded sequel (of sorts)” to Ibsen’s A Doll House.  He reported that “Hnath’s dialogue is full of sudden eruptions of profanity” and characterized Gold’s staging as “minimal and trendy.”  Roma Torre, labeling DH2 “a neat little play” on NY1, the news channel for Spectrum cable TV, reported that the “compact 4 character drama offers no easy answers in a superb production that asks a lot of provocative questions.”  Torre believed that “Hnath’s stylized take on the Ibsen classic brings the institution of marriage into sharp focus,” but warned, “Don’t expect any judgments here as this very smart 90 minute play only seems interested in opening the door wide to your own interpretation.”  WNYC’s Jennifer Vanasco pronounced Hnath’s “splendid” play “deeply satisfying (and very funny).”  The characters argue about marriage, but, Vanasco reported, “in Hnath and director Sam Gold’s telling, none of them are straw men (or women).” 

On Theater Pizzazz, Sandi Durell pronounced A Doll’s House, Part 2 a “smarty pants sequel” and said that Hnath “thinks he has the answers.”  The dialogue is “sharp and intelligent” and Gold “brings it to sizzling life.”  Durell declared that Metcalf “is thrilling to watch and listen to.”  TheaterScene.com’s Ron Cohen, calling DH2 “boldly written” and “forthrightly entitled,” asserted that it “gives audiences something to celebrate.”  Hnath’s “elegantly provocative script” receives “an immaculate production” from Gold in the playwright’s “auspicious” Broadway début.  With praise for each cast member, the TP reviewer asserted, “A Doll’s House, Part 2 revivifies the old-timey concept of a play of ideas.”  Samuel L. Leiter, on his blog, Theatre’s Leiter Side, states that the play “is always entertaining, frequently funny, and quite thoughtful.”  Then he added that “it’s also often unconvincing.”  By way of explanation, Leiter continued that “it’s occasionally hoist by its own cleverness” and gives “the impression of a sharp-witted playwright’s playful ‘what if’ exercise.”  Nonetheless, insisted the blogger, “Anything with Laurie Metcalf is worth seeing; to have her onstage throughout this play’s intermissionless 90 minutes is alone worth the price of admission.”  (Like most other reviewers, Leiter complimented all the actors.) 

Matthew Murray, labeling DH2 a “funny and insightful new play” with a “prosaic and provocative title” on Talkin’ Broadway, felt that the playwright “is more interested in twisting the familiar than regurgitating it.”  “The juxtaposition of the declared setting (roughly 1895) with our time also underlines important contrasts in how we’ve grown and how we haven’t,” Murray found, “and lets us view progress through two lenses simultaneously.” The cyber reviewer affirmed, “This technique glides rather than grates.”  The “somewhat uninspiring” set is “distractingly spare and clinically lighted,” but the cast is “excellent.”  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer characterized DH2 as “a completely original work, that can entertain and stimulate on its own.”  The CU reviewer assured theatergoers that “there’s nothing talky or boring here.  The talk is sharp, funny and ripe for exploding into high drama.”  The play, she asserted, is “as amusing and thought provoking as any sequel can get.” 

“The frenetic Broadway spring comes to a thrilling conclusion with the lightning-bolt opening of Lucas Hnath’s ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2,’” raved Christopher Isherwood on Broadway News, “a new play so endlessly stimulating that it could give audiences fodder for heated conversation until the fall season is in full swing.”  The theater, Isherwood asserted, “does not regularly present us with new plays of ideas—let alone comedies of ideas.  Hnath’s play fairly sets your head spinning with its knotty perspectives.”  While DH2 “is often mordantly funny, and the language is contemporary—Hnath’s play is fundamentally, and profoundly, serious.”  Isherwood explained that “for all its intellectual richness, this is not a dreary ‘they-loved-it-in-London?’ evening at the theater that will have you furtively checking your (proverbial) watch,” reporting that “the production is as much an engrossing entertainment as it is a theatrical treatise that stirs the heart even as it invigorates the mind.”  Gold directs “with his usual intelligence and incisiveness” and Metcalf “delivers what is easily her finest Broadway performance to date.”  In conclusion, the Broadway News reviewer stated that DH2 “is far too complex to be boiled down to a single apothegm,” but it “moves gently to a surprising, moving conclusion.”

On Front Row Center (the review that scored 100 on Show-Score), Tulis McCall opened her notice with a suggestion: “Here’s a timesaver for you.  Stop reading this, just for a few minutes, go directly to the phone or whatever ticket site you prefer and get tickets to this play.”  She declared, “A Doll’s House Part 2 is a stupendous creation in nearly every way.”  McCall felt, “It is the combination of empathy and bravado, clarity and uncertainty, resentment and hope that Hnath has given his characters that lets the play sneak in and grab you where you live.”  Under Gold’s direction, “This is a feast all around.”  TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart emphasized, “Hnath takes a massive risk in amending an essential drama of the Western theater.”  The TM reviewer, however, confirmed, “It is a leap that pays off in delightful and often hilarious ways.”  With “sheer clarity and brutality,” the playwright “raises deeper questions not just about a certain brand of feminism, but the cult of individualism that is so engrained in modern society.”  Director Gold “has led everyone in this cast to thoughtful and revelatory performances in an appealingly clean production.” “This is theatrical austerity done right,” pronounced Stewart.  In the end, he maintained, “it will be hard to walk away from A Doll’s House, Part 2 claiming that you have all the answers.”

Victor Gluck of TheaterScene.net labeled DH2 a “witty, funny and clever sequel” with a “stellar Broadway cast.”  Gluck found “that aside from being faithful to the Ibsen precursor, it has a decidedly modern sensibility.”  The “new story is absorbing and twisty, interestingly creating an entirely new set of ethical and social questions than was handled” in DH1DH2 “is a play of ideas,” and “the debate is always engrossing, always surprising.”  Nonetheless, the play “is quite funny in its Shavian way,” and the TS.net reviewer contended that director Gold “allows the actors and the dialogue to speak for themselves, rather than imposing any directorial touches.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale observed that A Doll’s House, Part 2 is “a play that will no doubt provoke discussion, particularly discussion about the fact that a Broadway play that debates issues regarding a woman’s fight against institutionalized sexism was written and directed by men.”  Designating the Broadway staging an “invigorating production,” Dale noted that it “showcases four stellar performances.” 

Christian Lewis of Huffington Post pronounced the Broadway presentation of A Doll’s House, Part 2 “masterfully written and acted,” with Metcalf, “who is quite simply superb,” “[a]t the helm of everything.”  Lewis, though, found, “The largest problem of A Doll’s House, Part 2 is the ambiguous time period” which rendered the play “a somewhat confusing experience for the audience.”  (I suggest Lewis learn to speak for himself.  Having read over two dozen reviews, I can testify that many viewers had no problem with this mixed chronology.  Even I, who didn’t much care for the tactic, knew it was a coordinated dramaturgical/directorial concept.)  “That being said,” the HP contributor backpedaled, “it was still an incredibly enjoyable play” with “four powerhouse actors.”  In the end, contended Lewis, “the true triumph of A Doll’s House, Part 2 is its refreshingly feminist political message.”  The review-writer proclaimed, “Nora proves that women don’t need a man”—who remembers the ’60s aphorism “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”?—“and if for nothing else, this is an excellent reason to go see A Doll’s House, Part 2.

In sum, I have to say I think the play’s a mess.  I understand what Hnath was trying to do from reading some analyses of his playwriting, but I didn’t find it viable in practice.  If I had to read about it afterwards, it can’t have communicated well on stage.  Furthermore, if Hnath’s examining the vicissitudes of modern marriage, even if he used a mock-up of a 19th-century one as a template . . . well, haven’t we done that in our theater (and film) for some time?   I don’t get the critical praise A Doll’s House, Part 2 received (it won only one of the Tonys for which it was nominated, which may be a warning) or the audience reception it got.  If I hadn’t had doubts to begin with, it’d have been a great disappointment.  As it was, it only confirmed my prejudices.  Fortunately,  we only paid half price, otherwise it would have been an expensive disappointment.

If you haven’t already seen DH2, I don’t recommend it.  I guess that’s obvious, isn’t it?

[A brief word about the title of Henrik Ibsen’s original play: The name under which Ibsen published his new play was Et Dukkehjem, Danish (the language in which the Norwegian playwright wrote) for simply “a doll house,” the name of the child’s toy.  The most common, and traditional, English translation is A Doll’s House, but some translators, especially American ones, prefer A Doll House, eschewing the possessive.  I fit into the second category, as readers can see from the above report, and there are two principal reasons for this decision.  The late Rolf Fjelde, the chief American translator of Ibsen’s plays, makes the argument that, first, the expression “doll’s house” is primarily British and became attached to the English rendition of the play by tradition because the British translation was the first English version to be published.  In the United States, we generally call the toy a “doll house,” and, just as I prefer to spell  ‘theater’ the American way, I prefer to call A Doll House by its American title.  (The standard German title for the play, by the way, is Nora.  Swedish film and stage director Ingmar Bergman made a 1981 adaptation of A Doll House which he also entitled Nora.  It doesn’t come with the complications of the English translation, but it’s also far less evocative.)

[Furthermore, as Fjelde also argues, Nora is the doll in this tale, and the Helmer house doesn’t belong to her.  That is, after all, the point, at least in part, that Ibsen was making.  She calls herself a “doll wife” when she explains to Torvald why she must leave, and she lives in a “doll house.”  So, for linguistic, possibly chauvinistic reasons and thematic, certainly logical ones, I’ll continue to refer to Ibsen’s play about the place of women in Norwegian society as A Doll House, except when discussing a production or script that goes by the British title (as I did in my report on TFANA’s Scandinavian rep).]

17 July 2017

'The Originalist' (PBS)


From 6 March to 31 May 2015, Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage presented the première of John Strand’s The Originalist at its home base, the Mead Center for American Theater in Southeast, near the Potomac River (see my post, “Washington’s Arena Stage: Under Construction,” 26 November 2011).  A three-hander about Associate Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court, the play was widely praised, largely for the performance of Washington’s acclaimed stage actor, Edward Gero, about whom I’ve written on a number of occasions (see “Amadeus (Round House Theatre, Bethesda, MD),” 6 July 2011; “Red (Arena Stage),” 4 March 2012), as the ultra-conservative justice who was appointed to SCOTUS in 1986 by Pres. Ronald Reagan.  (Scalia died at 79 on 13 February 2016, shortly after the end of the play’s first run at Arena.)  The term ‘originalism’ was largely made known by Scalia at his confirmation hearings and in his public statements since, but the concept long predates his tenure on the supreme bench; it’s closely related to the judicial philosophy of ‘strict constructionism,’ which has been a mainstay of conservative jurisprudence for many decades.  Scalia was the foremost spokesperson for originalism and its application, backed up on the current court by Justice Clarence Thomas and, now, Justice Neil Gorsuch.

This is not the forum for discussing the meaning and application of originalism, but in Scalia’s mind it meant “to interpret the Constitution as it is written and as it was understood when the authors crafted the original document,” as the character declares at the outset of the play.  This is not identical to determining the original intent of the lawmakers at the time the provisions were enacted, an alternative interpretation of originalism to which Scalia did not subscribe.  (Personally, I have problems with either sense: how does anyone in the 20th or 21st century have even an inkling of what citizens in the 18th and 19th centuries—even the early 20th century—understood by the clauses and amendments of the U.S. Constitution?  At best, it’s only an approximation, a guess, and at worst, it’s a self-serving cover for an ideological interpretation that suits someone’s politics.  That’s irrelevant for the present, in any case.  I’m not here to talk about originalism.  I’m here to talk about The Originalist.)

After it’s début at Arena, the play, which co-stars Kerry Warren as the justice’s liberal law clerk and another clerk of conservative leanings played by Harlan Work, both fictional characters, went on tour around the U.S., playing at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, in January to March 2017; the Pasadena Playhouse in southern California from April to May; a return to D.C.’s Arena, 7-30 July 2017; with a scheduled run at Chicago’s Court Theatre in May through June 2018.  The script hasn’t been published yet, but a 25 June 2015 special performance was recorded from the stage of Arena’s Kogod Cradle for release as a two-CD audiobook in October 2016 by L.A. Theatre Works. 

Another performance was filmed live on the play’s original home stage at the 200-seat Kogod, the flexible-space house, for a broadcast on WNET-Channel 13 in New York, the city’s Public Broadcasting System outlet, for its Theater Close-Up feature, the “spotlight on the innovative and provocative theater happening Off-Broadway and beyond,” at 9 p.m. on Monday, 13 March 2017 (with rebroadcasts scheduled over the following several weeks).  I watched the program, hosted by WNET president and CEO Neal Shapiro, and also taped it for re-viewing.  The performance, produced for television by Stage17, was directed for the stage by Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, and for the cameras by Diana Basmajian.  (I was in the Washington area when the original run was happening, but my mother’s deteriorating health made it impossible for me to see the performance, though I read much of the Washington Post coverage with interest—and jealousy.  As I’ve indicated, I think, I’m a fan of Gero and, to quote a Daily Beast headline, the actor, who strongly resembles Justice Scalia (the Gero and Scalia families apparently come from the same part of Sicily), “was born to play” the part.  Indeed, according to the article, Strand wrote the part “with him in mind.”

(Antonin Scalia is also the subject of Derrick Wang’s comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg, which premièred in July 2015 at Virginia’s Castleton Festival.)

There’s virtually no biographical information on John Strand, the playwright, that I could find; he’s one of the most successful people I’ve come across at staying off the radar.  He’s also a journalist, theater reviewer, and author based in the District of Columbia, but I couldn’t determine if he was born in Washington or if he’s associated with the DC metro area only because he was playwright-in-residence at Arena’s American Voices New Play Institute in 2014-15. Strand’s previous works include Our War, Tom Walker, The Miser (up-dated from Molière), Three Nights in Tehran, Charity Royal, his Charles MacArthur Award-winning Lovers and Executioners (Arena Stage), An Italian Straw Hat (South Coast Repertory), Lorenzaccio (Lansburgh Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company), Lincolnesque (Burstein Family Stage), Highest Yellow, The Diaries, Otabenga (Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia), and The Cockburn Rituals (Woolly Mammoth Theatre).  He’s received multiple playwriting commissions from South Coast Repertory, Arena Stage, the Shakespeare Theatre, and Virginia’s Signature Theatre.  He was also named Playwright of the Year by Broadway Play Publishing, publisher of several of Strand’s scripts.  Strand is also the author of the novel Commieland, a novel about a popular but aging theme park in rural Pennsylvania that re-creates Communism for Americans through thrice-daily-performed musical-historical revues.  His other books include Offensive Countermeasures: The Art of Active Defense.

Strand’s The Originalist “was inspired,” according to host Shapiro, “by former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s actual  custom of occasionally hiring razor-sharp clerks with opposing views to sharpen his own legal reasoning.”  (They were called “counterclerks” at the Court.)  The events and dialogue of the play, adds Shapiro, are fictional, “but the importance of debate over complex issues and how the Court functions is very much a real-life concern to all Americans.” 

As the play opens, a piece of opera (from Verdi’s La Traviata, I’ve been informed) is playing on an empty stage.  The Kogod is configured as a small thrust, with a parquet floor and a gold-trimmed red drape across the back (through which most entrances and exits will be made).  Two large crystal chandeliers hang over the playing area, which will serve as several different locations—a university lecture hall, Scalia’s office, a shooting range, a hospital room, among others—with a minimum of props.  (The set design is by Misha Kachman, the lighting by Colin K. Bills, the musical composition and sound design by Eric Shimelonis, and the costumes by Joseph P. Salasovich.)  Scalia (Gero) enters in his judicial robe, humming along with the aria.  We discover he’s giving a lecture to an auditorium of law students.  “I love opera,” he announces, “—the most complete and demanding art form . . . .  It requires effort and erudition and costumes.”  He chuckles at his own little joke.  Do you suppose he’s also alluding to something else?  No bet!

The music fades.  “I asked for this musical interlude to underscore a point.”  You can tell what’s coming—at least, I could. 
                                                                                                   
A great opera by Verdi or Donizetti must be only what it is.  Now, of course you can interpret the meaning in different ways, but there is a sanctity to the score.  The notes are the notes.  They are exactly what the composer composed then, now, and a hundred years from now.  And that is precisely my view of the Constitution—and, thus, the law.

No sooner does the jurist start his remarks when an aggressive young woman of color—who’s not one of the students in the class—jumps up and challenges him on nearly every point.  In the end of the confrontation, the woman reveals that she’s applied for a clerkship—with, of all judges, Scalia himself. 

The Supreme Court is beginning a new term and Scalia is interviewing candidates for law clerks for the coming year.  One interviewee is Cat, a recent female and African-American graduate of Harvard Law School who has firmly held liberal beliefs.  Scalia has called her in for an interview.  The interview leads to lively exchanges between the two in which the potential law clerk makes strong assertions about her positions, occasionally challenging—if not besting—the distinguished jurist, “probably the most polarizing figure in American civic life,” announces Cat.  Cat points out some background points they share, including that they are both Roman Catholics; like Scalia, Cat is the daughter of immigrants (her mother is from Gabon) and she grew up in New Jersey, where the justice was born.  (A personal—and coincidental—sidelight: though born in Trenton, Scalia  was raised in Queens, New York, and got his secondary education at Xavier High School—a Jesuit boys’ school located at the western end of my block in Manhattan.)  Asked why she wants to work for him, Cat answers that she thinks a clerk can influence her justice, perhaps as much as she knows the justice can influence his clerk.  After the verbal sparing, Cat is hired for the term.

As Scalia’s clerk, Cat continues to debate the justice over the issues that are or have been before him, arguing the liberal position while he refutes her points and notes what he sees as flaws in her reasoning and legal citations; Scalia occasionally concedes a point, but never the overall argument.  Some of these exchanges are heated, some are legalistic and rational, and others are humorous and even light-hearted.  (There’s even some badinage about his eventual death as he wonders who will succeed him.  At first it might sound as if this passage had been added after Scalia’s actual passing in 2016, but the lines pre-existed the jurist’s death and the fights over the nominations of Merrick Garland and Neil Gorsuch.)  Cat tells Scalia that she “detests” his rulings and provides her own definition of originalism: “a narrow doctrine by privileged white men living in the past.”  At one point, Scalia takes his clerk, a staunch advocate of gun control who’s never fired a weapon before, to a firing range to shoot at targets with an AR10 semiautomatic rifle . (This is the precursor to the AR15, the civilian version of the military’s M16, the current firearm of NATO armed forces.  Does Scalia really hunt with one of those?  It’s an assault weapon, not a hunting rifle.)  While they’re at the range, Scalia tells Cat that she’ll be writing his opinion in an LGBT-rights case, the challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA (United States v. Windsor, decided 26 June 2013); to assist her, the justice has hired a new clerk, Brad (Work), a Scalia acolyte and member of the conservative Federalist Society.  When Brad saunters onto the range, it turns out the two clerks know each other—both were in the Harvard Law class of 2011 and had butted heads over their opposing political beliefs. 

Cat and Brad begin working together on Scalia’s opinion (which would turn out to be a dissent; DOMA was decreed unconstitutional by SCOTUS in a 5-4 decision), gathering legal precedents and crafting an argument in support of the federal law defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.  Brad informs Cat that he knows she’s a lesbian, that it’s all over the Internet.  This is thanks, in fact, to sycophantic Brad himself (Cat calls him an “ass-kisser” and, later, a “spineless unnamed source”), who resents Cat for getting the clerkship he wanted and feels he deserves more than she.  (”You’re a toy,” Brad hurls at Cat.  “You amuse him.”)  The combative Brad asserts that Cat’s sexuality might put the justice in a difficult position when it’s revealed that his opinion included input from a member of the LGBT community with a strong interest in the outcome of the case.  Cat feels compelled to acknowledge this to Scalia before he makes his opinion public.  Rather than being surprised, the jurist informs Cat that he’s better informed than she apparently thinks and, what’s more, the justices vet their prospective employees pretty carefully.  He’s known all along about her sexual preferences and even considered that an asset for this particular case.  Once the cat’s out of the bag (so to speak), the liberal clerk’s goal isn’t to change the justice’s mind on gay marriage, but to write an opinion that expresses more inclusivity, especially of differing views.  (She succeeds, even though Scalia resists her entreaties.)

The two continue to debate the issues that confront the Court and the nation and their give-and-take, however sharply expressed, suggests that Scalia is more open-minded than he’s usually portrayed in the public media.  In Strand’s own words:

A picture emerged of a warm, caring man who took the time to know his clerks personally, someone who welcomed hearing the other side of an argument, if it is well argued.  A mentor, perhaps even a father figure.

(It may be no surprise, but several reviewers objected to this portrayal of the liberals’ villain on the Supreme Court.)  During one debate, Scalia, sitting in his big swivel chair as Cat stands beside his desk, suddenly seems to suffer from what appears to be a heart attack and Cat quickly comes to his side to assist him.  (Scalia suffered from coronary artery disease and several other conditions that probably contributed to his death in 2016.)  The justice’s discomfort is not serious, but we learn that Cat’s father is in a hospital in a coma from a stroke, something that she hasn’t shared with her judge; Scalia only learns of this when he asks Brad about Cat’s father.  Scalia appears at the hospital and finds Cat beside her father’s death bed; he offers his sympathies for her imminent loss.  (The father’s hospital bed, which appears several times in the play, is represented by a rectangle of light projected onto the stage floor.  Cat’s father, who’s never seen, is almost a fourth character in The Originalist.)  The play ends with the judge and the clerk acknowledging that their differences and their debates have indeed had profound influence on both of them.

The play runs about an hour and 45 minutes and is performed as a long one-act (11 scenes). There were several brief interludes of semi-darkness for some set changes, which took place mechanically for the most part, covered by snippets of opera by Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti, and Puccini.  The main performance metaphor of the play is not a debate or even a litigation, but a boxing match.  The stage has a vague resemblance to  a squared ring and there are frequent allusions to boxing in the dialogue, which aligns with Scalia’s pugnacity and combativeness.  Starting in 2012, the play covers the year of Cat’s tenure as Scalia’s clerk.

Strand used excerpts from Scalia’s actual dissents, rulings, and opinions for the justice’s dialogue, which have clearly been cherry-picked and edited.  Gero spent a great deal of time over a year studying Scalia, observing him on the bench, and meeting with him in less formal circumstances.  The actor tells one anecdote about a time he and the Supreme Court justice were eating at a Washington restaurant just after the play first opened at Arena.  Another diner approached the two men, who looked a lot like one another, and complimented Gero on his performance.  The actor indicated his dining companion across the table and quipped, “You mean, when I played him?”  Scalia burst into laughter, Gero reports.  And like the character Cat in The Originalist, actor Gero was invited to go shooting with Justice Scalia—not on a range, however, but hunting. 

From his performance, it’s clear that Gero studied the judge’s movements and gestures, particularly the way he stands with his arms folded in front of this abdomen, each hand grasping the opposite upper forearm.  (The two men were such lookalikes that after Scalia died, the Internet journal Huffington Post and Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin on his Twitter account both posted photos of Gero in The Originalist in mistake for pictures of the late jurist.  Remarked the actor: “I know, thank God, he’d be laughing at that, too.”)  In their chats, Gero and Scalia “talked about Italy.  We talked about family.  We talked about fathers.  We talked about many things.  And we didn’t talk about the play.  We didn’t talk about politics.”  He explained to Scalia, “Mr. Justice, this is my entry into the way you think, not what you think, but how you think.” 

The actor also found that after rehearsing and playing the part for so long—by the time he returned to Washington for the Arena revival in July, Gero’d appeared as Antonin Scalia over 100 times—he felt “empowered by living in the role.”  He confessed:

In our correspondence, I would check and double-check and edit, to make sure everything was grammatically correct and try to be elegant.  In talking with people, I would look for flaws in the argument and support for the argument.  I wouldn’t be so eager to say “You’re wrong.”

Gero’s performance alone is worth watching, however, though that arm-folding pose seems awkward and unnatural.  It’s a minor glitch, but the performances of Warren and Work are occasionally stiff and forced—for which I largely blame the script.  Strand’s dialogue, particularly in the arguments and debates, makes both clerks sound like programmed moot court androids, one for Team Liberal and one for Team Conservative.  Director Smith didn’t guide the actors away from this result, though.  Somehow Gero manages to escape this snare—possibly because of his close association with the real justice he plays; all those lunches and conversations must have paid off.

For theater people, it’s also interesting to see how Strand built the script.  I find it fairly contrived and set-up.  Strand has said that he drew from Scalia’s writings, but I don’t know how much of Gero’s dialogue is quotations or paraphrases and how much is just made up.  If the justice’s words are mostly real, it’s more interesting than if the playwright made most of them up (based on what he thinks Scalia believes and might have said).  In the latter case, Strand would be able to make Scalia say whatever the author wanted to contrive arguments with his liberal provocateur.  (In the former instance, he could be selective of Scalia’s statements, of course.)

Certainly, one contrivance is inventing the two clerks, especially Cat, as basically one-sided figures with diametrically opposed views.  I knew before anyone opened her or his mouth which side of an issue each one was going to take—because otherwise there wouldn’t be a conflict and without a conflict, there’s no play.  I say “especially Cat” because, clearly, she’s meant to provoke Scalia so Strand can get him to say all the conservative and originalist notions the dramatist wants him to spout from the stage.  (Christopher Isherwood labeled the part “a sparring partner, Devil’s advocate (or angel’s, depending on your point of view) and cue giver for Scalia” in the New York Times.)  The writer’s made her a woman, more pointedly a woman of color, so he has the opportunity to show Scalia as a sensitive and thoughtful man rather than a thorough ideologue—and so he can say, “Look, I’m not an ideologue.  I am an originalist,” and provide a definition of that term for the play’s (and audience’s) benefit. 

Strand’s also given Cat a dying father so the play’s Scalia can demonstrate his warm, paternal side, and she’s a lesbian so the justice can show how broadminded he is—and how savvy when he reveals he’s known all along about her “secret.”  Finally, if Cat’s not a self-described liberal of “the ‘flaming’ category,” Strand couldn’t show how receptive each of his main characters has become in the end by agreeing that each had influenced the other and that there is the possibility of respect, especially for one another’s humanity, between the two political poles.  In an interview, Strand wondered, “Is there still a political ‘middle’ and what does it cost to meet there?”  He explained, “I wanted to use this combative, almost operatic figure to explore how two people on opposite sides of a political, social, and even legal spectrum can take a step toward one another, begin to listen, learn to hear and respect the other’s argument.”

Furthermore, I feel the arguments Strand constructs between both Scalia and Cat and Cat and Brad are devised more as showcases than as any kind of dispute between living human beings, irrespective of how strongly they hold onto their socio-political views.  Cat is introduced into The Originalist to give Scalia an irritant around which he could form his pearls of wisdom, and Brad is introduced to serve the same function for Cat.  (Strand said that he “interviewed a couple of former Scalia clerks,” but “did not ask for information on legal issues, only what it was like to work for Justice Scalia.”) 

In another sort of contrivance, I return to Scalia’s opening metaphor, invoking opera as the model for his philosophy of jurisprudence.  Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether his analogy is derived from a false dichotomy and look only at his characterization of opera.  I’ll ignore his assertion that opera performance “requires erudition” (“effort” is unarguable—as it is for any art form; “costumes”—well, usually, though there are plenty of exceptions): it requires talent and maybe extraordinary sensitivity, certainly, but whether it requires “profound knowledge,” I’m not convinced.  Scalia wants to think singing opera needs “learning and scholarship” because it suits his purpose to say so, but just as there are talented but ignorant actors, there are surely talented but ignorant opera singers.  (I won’t argue the same is true of lawyers and, particularly, judges—though we all may remember one Judge Harold Carswell, nominated unsuccessfully by Pres. Richard Nixon for a seat on the Supreme Court, who was deemed “mediocre” and defended for that quality because mediocre people are entitled to representation on the High Court, too!)  So, forget that. 

Let’s look at whether Scalia’s correct to declare that “the notes . . . are exactly what the composer composed” through all eternity.  Actually, let’s go back a step further and ask if “you can interpret the meaning in different ways” for an opera, and opera is a metaphor for the law and the Constitution, doesn’t that mean, in the justice’s own words, that you can interpret the meaning of the law and the Constitution in different ways, too?  Sounds like it to me.  In a court, I might be tempted to say, “I rest my case, your honor.”  QED.

But back to the notes being immutable.  I’m sure the composers would want that to be so—maybe not for the same reasons that Scalia does—but is it true?  Certainly many musical compositions have been transformed by later musicians, arrangers, and conductors—and though I’m not an opera fan, so my experience with that form of music is minimal, I’ve heard renditions of operas that have been altered for various reasons.  So, it does happen—the notes can be changed.  What Scalia probably means is that he doesn’t believe they should be changed—but that’s essentially arguing that a law’s meaning can’t be changed or reinterpreted because he doesn’t want it to be.  That’s not an argument, really. It’s just a plea, a wish, a preference. 

What Scalia’s holding out for is what playwright Mac Wellman called the “the theater of the non-event” or “geezer theater,” which he says “suborns and undermines ideals of diversity and multiculturalism in order that its institutions may survive and prosper, survive the unspeakable invasiveness of the Other.”  In other words, among other things, it’s essentially self-protective.  In his discussion of “the Deadly Theatre,” innovative theater director Peter Brook described this same phenomenon, putting the blame for its perpetuation on what he called “the deadly spectator.”  This kind of viewer—Wellman’s “geezerdom,” among whom he might well have placed Scalia—“emerges from routine performances of the classics smiling because nothing has distracted him from trying over and confirming his pet theories to himself.”  (Both Wellman and Brook were writing about plays and prose theater, but I think readers can see that their thinking extends to all performing art forms, including opera.)  He goes to see “plays done by good actors in what seems like the proper way—they look lively and colourful, there is music and everyone is all dressed up, just the way they are supposed to be in the best of classical theatres” and confuses this “intellectual satisfaction” with a true theatrical experience.

Now, let’s look at that matter of whether the analogy of the law and the Constitution to opera is even valid.  What Scalia’s saying is that the law is either like opera or it’s cacophony.  Is that true?  What if we say that the law is like jazz?  What if we say that each generation of musicians (citizens) plays (understands) the songs (statutes) according to its own musical (societal) standards?  Jazz is a live genre, not dead, as Scalia declares the Constitution—by which he means ossified.  (Did you know that there are churches in which 300-year-old liturgical music is being played as jazz in jazz masses?)  Except that Scalia doesn’t like that belief, is it just as valid a metaphor?  (That’s the definition of a false dichotomy: presenting two options as if they were the only ones when there are really three possibilities or more.)  I say it is, and if the law is like jazz, then it’s a “living document,” the philosophy of most liberals when it comes to our laws and the United States Constitution.  (In The Originalist, Justice Scalia just declares that this position “is  obvious.  And wrong!”  That’s also not an argument.  It’s just an assertion.) 

Strand, however, sets up his disputants so that Scalia will nearly always use his position was a Supreme Court justice and a distinguished jurist and legal scholar essentially to cow his young opponent even if his legal arguments are flawed.  (I had a history prof in college who was like that.  He was arguably the most respected member of the university’s faculty, a true eminence grise, complete with a mane of silver hair, and he came to class with years of teaching the same material behind him and a command of all the examples and precedents he needed to defeat any counter argument from an undergrad who didn’t have that at his fingertips and was encountering the issue on the fly in class.  More than once, I sensed that the teacher was doing this, but without the ammunition available couldn’t debate him.  Only after class did I sometimes realize what I could have said to refute some contention the professor made—but then it was too late.  Of course, the prof knew that this would be the outcome—he planned on it—and so does Strand’s Scalia.  By the way, that history class was 50 years ago, and that professor is surely long dead . . . and it still aggravates me!)

There were no reviews I found of the Theater Close-Up performance of The Originalist, but the live Arena performances, which garnered two Helen Hayes nominations (including one for Gero’s performance), were well covered.  (There are also reviews on line of the subsequent tour stops, but even though the cast was largely the same for all those later presentations, I’ll stick to the DC-area reviews because the venue was the same as the one I saw on television.)  The subject matter—or, more precisely, the main character—brought the play to the attention of many publications that probably wouldn’t have covered a theater production ordinarily, including political papers like Roll Call and legal journals; they weren’t all reviews, however.  My survey covers 14 notices from D.C.-area outlets, one New York paper, and a few national journals and websites. 

Let me start with Nelson Pressley’s notice in the Washington Post, which led off with the question: “Is the bulldog conservative justice we see parading up and down the stage in ‘The Originalist’ the Antonin Scalia?  That’s a verdict for the Supreme Court justice’s intimates and close observers to render.”  The Postman continued, however: “Edward Gero’s lively performance at Arena Stage makes an extremely compelling case.”  Cataloguing Gero’s acting characteristics for the portrayal, Pressley declared, “If this is not Scalia to the last degree, in Gero’s exacting hands this is certainly a man in full.”  Calling The Originalist a “daring new play,” the Post reviewer reported, “It takes chutzpah to cross-examine a figure like Scalia on the stage, and Strand doesn’t soft-pedal it.”  Like me, Pressley found Scalia “is more believable than” Cat, who, in “Warren’s performance is fierce and knowledgeable, but this Cat is so intense and so rudely in the conservative lion’s face that you keep expecting Scalia to get rid of her with a roar and a fast fatal swipe.”  He asserted, however, “Arena’s glorious Kogod Cradle hasn’t felt this alive with new writing in a while,” but declared in the end, “Ultimately, there’s Gero” who “lands the laughs, delivers the gravitas and at every turn makes you believe this tantalizing man knows and feels American law down to his very bones.”
 
Even the New York Times covered the production, and Isherwood characterized The Originalist as “essentially a series of debates dressed up in the robes of drama” that “goes to some lengths to suggest that Justice Scalia, despite his scorched-earth dissents and oft-expressed contempt for the views of the liberal wing of the court, does actually possess a heart.”  In the Timesman’s view,

But the meat of the play draws a portrait of the private man in accordance with the public record: rigid in his views, deeply moralistic and unafraid to express his florid contempt for those benighted souls who see things from any perspective other than his own.

Also: He’s funny.

The title character is “portrayed with terrific verve and snappy humor by Edward Gero,” though “it’s sometimes hard to disguise the mechanical nature of Cat’s role.”  The two performances aren’t equal, either: “Poised and feisty as her Cat is, Ms. Warren nevertheless often sounds as if she were reciting speeches or talking points, whereas Mr. Gero makes even the more bluntly hortatory passages seem to flow naturally from the (big) mouth of his character.”  The play, Isherwood said in the end, “serves fundamentally as a primer on Justice Scalia’s years on the court.  Those who have followed the court’s rightward drift . . . will probably learn nothing new.” 

In the Washington City Paper, Chris Klimek, characterizing The Originalist as “John Strand’s smooth, easily digested, genially middlebrow work,” bemoaned “a depressing irony at the center”: “The energetic young woman of color just can’t hang with the cranky old white guy.”  Gero’s portrayal “is a magnificent theatrical recreation of the jurist,” but “Scalia must share the stage, and the foil Strand has given him is more a punching bag tha[n] the ‘sparring partner’ the script protests too much that she is.”  What’s more, Klimek affirmed, Warren “just doesn’t have the moves to carry the interludes when Gero is in the wings.”  (“She’s not bad,” the CP reviewer explained, “but she is badly overmatched.”)  The review-writer’s overall assessment is that “The Originalist is a warm, deeply conventional ‘well-made play’” whose “pleasant-but-slight impression . . . is that of a long episode of The West Wing.”  He concluded that “it’s glib and careful to flatter its audience for being sharp enough to keep up.”

Gary Tischler of The Georgetowner called The Originalist “a set-up play,” but Gero “dives into the character of Antonin Scalia . . . as if it was a particularly inviting churning ocean.  The actor’s “portrait is full-bodied” while Warren’s has “appealing energy.”  In K Street Magazine, Jordana Merran labeled The Originalist “theater unequivocally of Washington, by Washington, for Washington . . . to borrow President Lincoln’s famous expression” with Antonin Scalia “brilliantly played by” Gero.  His bottom line was that the play is “[s]mart, funny, moving, and profound” and “anyone who’s been in D.C. (or watched its political theatrics) for even the briefest time can find something to love in this production.”

The conservative National Review’s Jonathan Keim declared, “If you are looking to understand the life and times of . . . Antonin Scalia, The Originalist . . . will be of only modest help.”  Keim acknowledged, “The artistic depiction of Justice Scalia reveals some of his achievements and philosophy, but the acting can’t quite make up for the story’s cognitive dissonance.”  He complained, “Although the acting is good, its emotional intensity sometimes seems amped up to balance the dryish legal and political arguments that are the bulk of the dialogue.”  Furthermore, the play “has trouble making up its mind.  Is Gero supposed to be the warm and caring Justice Scalia that his clerks know, or is he, in playwright John Strand’s words, a ‘divisive personality’?” The NR writer found “the instantaneous Hyde-Jekyll transformation . . . abrupt and disorienting rather than illuminating.”  Keim also found, “The Originalist occasionally manages to eruct an insight,” but “it’s a bit too pop-psych to cause the audience to reflect.”  He even “wonders if Strand really understands originalism.” 

In the Atlantic, Jeffrey Rosen and Garrett Epps, the journal’s Supreme Court correspondents, discussed Strand’s play, which, they determined, “attempts to unpack Scalia’s intellectual commitment to originalism, and the extent to which his personal beliefs have any influence on his interpretation of the law.”  Rosen dubbed the play “entertaining” and added that Gero “offered an eerily convincing physical impersonation of the justice.”  He pronounced “the broad ambition of the show—to dramatize the intellectual, political, and cultural stakes in the battle of ideas at the Supreme Court over how to interpret the Constitution—is entirely worthwhile,” but felt “the play failed to achieve that ambition, because it presented a liberal fantasy of the debate over originalism, rather than presenting both sides in the actual debate over originalism itself.”  “Basically,” Rosen contended, “Strand has pitted a caricature of Scalia, the results-oriented moralist, against a 21st century caricature of William O. Douglas, the romantic liberal activist.”  He also objects that “the partisan premise of the play is obvious from its repeated references to Scalia as a monster.”  In addition, “throughout the show, Strand mischaracterizes Scalia’s opinions so it looks like he’s deciding cases on moral, not constitutional grounds.” 

Epps asserted that “playwright John Strand has not written opera but musical comedy,” and compared The Originalist with My Fair Lady, equating Scalia with Professor Higgins, “a powerful older man,” and Cat to Eliza Doolittle, “a powerless young woman,” whom “he undertakes to raise . . . to his level only to find that she completes his sentimental education.”  (Later, Rosen compared Strands play to Damn Yankees, with Cat as the Faust/Joe Hardy figure and Brad as Lola, the witch sent by Scalia/Satan to keep Cat “on the dark side.”)   Epps then demurred: “But the play is called The Originalist, not My Fair Law Clerk.  It purports to be about a philosophy of judging.  Does this work tell us anything new about that?”  Epps complained that Strand’s Scalia “is smaller than life” and has been “prettied up.”  The Originalist’s Scalia is “a gruff but kindly man”; however, contended Epps, the real justice possessed “an ever-present area of darkness, negativity, rage, and solitude” which Strand “seems determined not to look at.”

I alluded to the existence of  some reviews that strongly objected to Strand’s soft portrait of Antonin Scalia, and you’ve seen a few summarized already.  But the strongest of them was Mark Joseph Stern on Slate, the on-line journal.  The headline for his notice was “Scalia Fan Fiction” and the subhead was “The lovable grouch is a lie.”  Stern believed that in The Originalist, “We, the audience is meant to think, would never view Scalia so simplistically [as either a hero or a monster]; we understand that the justice is really a principled conservative, a brilliant and complex man who resists partisan classification.”  The writer went on to elucidate:

If you share that vision of Scalia, you will find The Originalist deeply enjoyable.  If you think the justice is actually a sanctimonious, bigoted bully, you will find The Originalist grating, lionizing, and gallingly condescending.

Stern, who writes on the law and LGBTQ issues, deemed the justice “looks less conservative than Republican” and “a lot more like the Fox News justice.”  The Slate journalist observed, “The Scalia of 1995 could back up his bravado with proven integrity.  The Scalia of 2015 can’t back up his bluster with anything but raw partisanship.”  In Stern’s view, “[T]he justice who struts onto the stage when The Originalist opens . . . is not the man who bitterly spewed his politics from the bench.  He is an idealized Scalia of yesteryear, firm but compassionate, stern but witty, irascible but oddly gentle.”  “The Originalist,” the legal and LGBTQ reporter asserted, “wants us to imagine Scalia as a lovable contrarian and a warmhearted grump whose judicial opinions often lie worlds away from his real-life habits.  There is simply no evidence that this portrayal is accurate.”  Stern also contended that  Strand “asks us to buy into Scalia’s own carefully crafted image as scrupulous originalist.”  On the contrary, the journalist asserted, “This vision of the justice is just plain wrong.  Scalia’s originalism is brazenly opportunistic and obviously influenced by his personal and political views.”  Nonetheless, “None of these problems detracts from the entertainment value of the play, which is always engaging and often very funny,” declared Stern.  “Nor do they distract from Edward Gero’s exuberant, remarkably realistic performance, a boisterous and astonishingly naturalistic feat of acting.”  His final word on the play is:

The Originalist extols Scalia’s ostensible grandeur so breathlessly that, by the finale, it careens toward pure fantasy.  This isn’t just historical fiction; it’s fan fiction, determined to recast Scalia as an unprejudiced legal giant.  Don’t believe a word of it.

Susan Davidson on CurtainUp dubbed the play “engaging theater” with “good dialogue.”  Gero, Davidson felt, “gives a superbly convincing performance,” adding, “The play is his.”  The actor “is so forceful and so convincing in laying out Justice Scalia's positions that even an arch-liberal stops to think and possibly re-assess his/her position on some of the most heated arguments of the last few decades.”  Work, the CU reviewer found, “makes the most of this basically symbolic part” and Warren “is excellent.”  Davidson caviled about a couple of scenes she thought were superfluous (including the riflery scene) and reported that the production is “too long,” but ended saying that it “is well worth seeing.”  On TheaterMania, Barbara Mackay, labeling the Arena presentation “a riveting, world-premiere production,” reported that it’s “far from a record of his legal decisions” and “not a biography,” but is intended “to generate a conversation that examines the distance between two viewpoints.”  “Gero is brilliant as the blunt, aggravating, funny, intense, and fierce Scalia,” affirmed Mackay, “Warren is excellent,” and Work “becom[es] believable as physically and socially dangerous to Cat.” 

MD Theatre Guide’s Heather Hill, characterizing The Originalist as “a very intense and deeply serious drama,” declared that “the flaming show should definitely ignite your interest no matter what side of the aisle you sit on.”  Hill reported that “it definitely struck my funny bone on a number of occasions, and never seemed to take itself overly serious,” confirming, “It is definitely a piece of drama and not a biopic, and I was engrossed by both the story and staging.”  She found, “The show even-handedly explores the person of Scalia” (the very take that so exercised Slate writer Stern), and summed up by asserting:

The Originalist is brilliant, witty, smack full of humour and jokes, relevant to the time and brimful of ideas and questions.  It is definitely a show you don’t want to miss, whether you just like a great piece of drama, want to check out some DC politics in the theatre, or want to go see some excellent acting.

Riley Croghan of DCist reported that “The Originalist, takes advantage of that can’t-look-away fascination, using it to give audiences their own window into the controversial Supreme Court Justice’s inevitably complicated interior life.”  It “starts off more like a premise than a play,” said the reviewer but “soon settles into its rhythm as a work about the pair’s complicated relationship.”  It “is a smart, thrilling trip through Supreme Court history” that “brings a sense of drama to moments that wouldn’t typically be theatrical.”  Croghan felt, “At times, the deck feels stacked during The Originalist,” but concluded that it’s “nothing if not a human portrayal of a larger-than-life figure, almost to a fault.”   

On DC Theatre Scene, Tim Treanor characterized The Originalist as “a play about ideas” in which Strand “gins up such heat as he can.”  The play, however, “is mostly about two contrasting views on how we should govern ourselves.”  Treanor found, “Exposition is done artlessly” and “Strand spends some time on the details of the law but his real subject is details of the heart.”  “The conflict between Cat and Scalia . . . is salted with mischief and joy,” the DCTS reviewer observed.  “If legal and political discourse, tightly drawn and mouthwateringly funny, is not your cup of tea,” suggested Treanor, like me, a fan of Gero, “you might go anyway to see some of the best acting in Washington” embedded in “a good, rigorous production.”  David Sobelsohn on CultureVulture asserted that Strand structured his play “like a boxing match” played on a stage with “virtually no set, and a minimum of props.”  According to Sobelsohn, “Mostly, the concept works.  Occasionally, Smith and Kachman’s bare-bones staging gets too abstract.”  The play, affirmed the review-writer, “is neither a documentary nor a law lesson but more a portrayal of the effect of establishing personal connection between ideological opponents.”  “Anyone who has seen Scalia in action will marvel at Gero’s portrayal,” declared Sobelsohn, but “neither Warren’s Cat nor Harlan Work’s Brad matches the credibility and power of Gero’s Scalia.”  In the final analysis, though, when the law clerk raises the issue of the justice’s health and possible retirement, “one can’t help wondering,” the CV writer pondered, “if Strand has created a liberal’s idealization of Antonin Scalia, mixed with wishful thinking.”