The Originalist

The Originalist

Justice onstage in Washington

by John Strand

Directed by Molly Smith

with Edward Gero and Kerry Warren

Arena Stage

website

Through May 30, 2015

American playwrights have written about the United States Supreme
Court for nearly 70 years, at least since the 1946 Broadway premiere
of “The Magnificent Yankee,” about Oliver Wendell Holmes. “First Monday
in October” (1978) imagined the first female justice. “Father Chief
Justice” (1997) depicted Edward Douglass White, one of the chiefs under
whom Justice Holmes served. The 2008 one-man show, “Thurgood,”
portrayed the Court’s first African-American justice.

None of these dared represent, on stage, a sitting Supreme Court
justice. Now at Washington’s Arena Stage, John Strand’s “The
Originalist” has done exactly that. In nearly 30 years on the Court,
Strand’s title character, Antonin Gregory Scalia–the Court’s senior
justice–has earned a reputation as acerbic and arrogant, brilliant,
witty, and charming, the Court’s conservative anchor and its most
divisive member. Half the country considers him a hero; the other
half sees him as a monster. He is said to cherish both roles. But
what makes Scalia so polarizing makes him compelling as a character.
(He will also feature in the comic opera “Scalia/Ginsburg,” premiering
this summer at Virginia’s Castleton Festival.)

As “The Originalist” starts, with an introduction from “La Traviata,”
Scalia delivers a law-school guest lecture. He expresses his love for
the past, when opera had an audience sophisticated enough to
appreciate it. Comparing an opera score to the US Constitution,
Scalia expounds on “originalism,” the doctrine that judges should
interpret the US Constitution as its authors understood it. (Oddly,
in the same monologue, Strand’s Scalia complains that affirmative
action, “as a federal mandate,” violates the Fourteenth Amendment,
which by its terms and original understanding limits only the States.)
Suddenly, a young woman in the audience starts shouting rhetorical
questions at Scalia. Nicknamed “Cat,” the young woman is Scalia’s
opposite, a self-described “flaming liberal,” with a mother born in
sub-Saharan Africa. She announces to all assembled that she will soon
interview for a clerkship at the Supreme Court, indeed–much to his
surprise–with Justice Scalia himself. In the next scene, at the end
of that job interview, and after criticizing Cat’s inappropriate
behavior at his lecture, and what he calls her weak reasoning and
flawed thinking, Strand’s Scalia hires her anyway, on the spot, to
start work the following month. She will keep him “in shape” by
advancing her “untenable arguments,” which he will “systematically
destroy.”

Over nearly two hours, in eleven scenes without intermission, Strand
structures his play like a boxing match. In the course of a one-year
clerkship, and with flashes of surprising humor, Scalia and Cat debate
hot-button legal issues from abortion and the death penalty to gun
rights and racial segregation. (Curiously, Strand omits issues on
which Scalia has taken positions considered “liberal,” as when Scalia
upheld constitutional protection for flag-burning.) Eventually,
despite knowing she has personal reasons to oppose his position,
Scalia assigns Cat as lead clerk on the highest-profile case of the
year, raising a claimed constitutional right to same-sex marriage. To
help prepare his dissent in opposition, Scalia brings in a third
character, Brad, a young sycophant–coincidentally one of Cat’s
law-school classmates–who will agree with anything Scalia says.

Director Molly Smith and designer Misha Kachman have encouraged seeing
“The Originalist” as a boxing match by reconfiguring Arena’s Kogod
Cradle as an elongated thrust, with the audience on three sides,
virtually no set, and a minimum of props–a desk here, a table there.
Mostly, the concept works. Occasionally, Smith and Kachman’s
bare-bones staging gets too abstract: Cat visits her comatose father
in the hospital, but with both bed and father only a rectangular spot
of light (from light designer Colin K. Bills), it takes awhile to
realize what’s going on. A food fight between Brad and Cat comes off
as strangely clean, dry, and antiseptic.

Some lines come verbatim from Scalia’s writings and public statements.
Still, “The Originalist” is neither a documentary nor a law lesson but
more a portrayal of the effect of establishing personal connection
between ideological opponents. Scalia teaches Cat how to fire a gun.
They bond over her father’s death and together attend a performance of
Mozart’s C-minor Mass. Antagonism shades into affection. In the end,
Strand credits the liberal law clerk with having convinced the
conservative justice to add a couple of moderating sentences to his
same-sex marriage dissent.

Strand wrote the title role for DC-based actor Edward Gero. Gero has
much in common with Antonin Scalia: both Roman Catholic, both trace
their ancestry to small, nearby Italian villages. Both are opera
lovers born or raised in New Jersey and nearby New York City. Both
excel in their profession–Gero has won numerous acting awards–and
both approach text claiming reverence for its original understanding.
Both have even acted in Macbeth. As Scalia, Gero has captured the
justice’s movement, his gestures, his passion, even his speech
patterns and the self-amusement and irritation in his voice. Anyone
who has seen Scalia in action will marvel at Gero’s portrayal.

Though Strand gives Kerry Warren’s Cat some of the play’s best
lines–in one passage she compares Scalia with various Shakespeare
characters–neither Warren’s Cat nor Harlan Work’s Brad matches the
credibility and power of Gero’s Scalia. But both Warren and Work must
struggle against the limits of their characters. Brad’s bitter
accusation that Scalia hired Cat as his clerk because of her color
comes across as absurd. And while Cat is fiercely intelligent, her
self-righteous harangues are so rude and Gero’s Scalia responses so
nasty that it’s hard to believe he’d really hire her. Likewise, when
she gets the same-sex marriage assignment, it beggars belief that
someone at her level would admit uncertainty whether she could “draft
an opinion based on law, not on emotion”–law school’s first and most
important lesson. When Cat raises questions about Scalia’s age,
health, and continued enthusiasm for the job, one can’t help wondering
if Strand has created a liberal’s idealization of Antonin Scalia,
mixed with wishful thinking.

“The Originalist” runs through Sunday, April 26 (Sundays, Tuesdays,
and Wednesdays at 7:30; Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8; with 2
p.m. weekend matinées) at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St., SW, Washington,
DC. Tickets start at $55 (plus fees, subject to change). For tickets
or more information, call (202) 488-3300 or go to www.arenastage.org.
Even before opening night, many performances were sold out.

Justice Scalia says he has no plans to see a performance.

A recovering lawyer and law professor, in 1995 Mr. Sobelsohn founded the Washington, DC-area theater-discussion group Footlights, now in its 20th year. For a time he modeled his life after his favorite play's eponymous godlike non-character, who does nothing and never arrives. Now he tutors law students, reports on Supreme Court arguments, advises local theaters on plays for potential productions, and sometimes writes theater reviews.