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.”

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