Here’s a play that could hardly come along at a more opportune moment. It’s John Strand’s The Originalist, a 2015 play reaching 59E59 Theaters after bowing at the Arena Stage and touring elsewhere. As you may have already guessed, Strand is rattling merrily along about the Supreme Court’s arch-originalist, Antonin Scalia.
Immediately, it has to be said that the dramatist hasn’t written a one-man work. Rather than allow Scalia (Edward Gero) to talk solo and at length about his conviction that the Constitution is not an adaptable living document but an unchanging word-for-word delineation of the law, Strand introduces Cat (Tracy Ifeachor), a determined Catholic, black, lesbian, liberal Harvard Law School graduate.
Scalia and Cat first lock horns when she attends a 2012 lecture he’s giving under Federalist Society auspices. Repeatedly, she interrupts him as he explains his inflexible interpretation of the Constitution. She wants especially to push him on his attitude towards the controversial Roe v. Wade decision.
A few days later, she shows up in Scalia’s chamber as a candidate for clerkship. There, she continues challenging him on his interpretation of the law, and only after Scalia dresses her down for how ill-informed she is does he all-but-offhandedly tell her that he wants her as one of his four interns for the coming year.
(N.B.: Reference to the Federalist Society, from whose list Donald J. Trump plucked Supreme Court nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, is just one example of how up-to-the-minute The Originalist is. Not to mention the Roe v. Wade references.)
For the rest of Strand’s 110-minute, intermissionless play Scalia and Cat wrangle over whether or not the Constitution is open for molding to changing times. In other words, the playwright has drawn two characters—one real, one apparently fictitious—to represent both sides of the never-ending conservatism-versus-liberalism debate.
That The Originalist is little more than a thinly disguised debate does have its drawbacks as the Scalia-Cat exchanges accumulate and range from bickering to knock-down-drag-out disputes. As the confrontations mount over decisions like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the question looms as to whether any intern, no matter how comfortable she or he is with a justice, would become quite so vehement?
Along the way, some of this debilitating onus is relieved by mentions of famous court cases, by the pith of the substantiating by the two well-versed principals and by the more or less predictable affection developing between the intellectual wranglers.
In particular, three sequences support the humanity here. Two take place at a firing range where marksman Scalia takes Cat to train on firing a rifle. Another occurs when Cat forces Scalia to admit his feelings about having been passed over for Chief Justice. It’s clear that Scalia, subdued for once, hasn’t fully recovered from the disappointment. Actually, a moving fourth scene has Scalia offering Cat solace after the death of her father, a man to whom she has dedicated her accomplishments.
Strand does bring on a third figure to flatter Scalia and toss digs at Cat. He’s Brad (Brett Mack), another Harvard Law School alumnus. (So’s Scalia, of course.) He’s on board to quarrel about conservatism with Cat when Scalia isn’t, but though he completely buys Scalia’s Originalist beliefs, he’s too obsequious to steal the justice’s favor.
Throughout The Originalist there’s banter about Scalia’s being a “monster.” The judge even boasts of his reputation, claiming that half the country loves him and half the country hates him—and for the same reasons. As directed by Molly Smith, Gero surely gets that aspect across—at the same time as Ifeachor’s Cat is depicted as something of a relentless monster herself. All three actors distinguish themselves on Misha Kachman’s practical set.
Just how Scalia will influence Cat in their year toiling together, and whether Cat will have any reciprocal influence on Scalia, is a plot carrot Strand puts before his dramatic cart. The test becomes Scalia’s disgust for DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) and its culmination in the Obergefell v. Hodges 6-3 decision that establishes same-sex marriage as a Constitution right
Repelled by the draft for Scalia’s dissent, Cat adamantly requests that he add a mitigating phrase she offers. Whether he does won’t be revealed here, but surely the issue has renewed meaning now that a second Trump nominee, who may be inclined to reverse the decision, is up for Congressional approval or disapproval.
Moreover, where Scalia, who died in 2016, stands with today’s audiences has to be a thought running through ticket buyers’ minds all the while The Originalist unfolds. It’s likely that Manhattan audiences will differ in their inclinations from many other parts of the nation where The Originalist also deserves to play.
When first seen, Scalia, an opera lover, is listening to “Libiamo,” the tenor’s first act aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. A drinking song, it’s probably not intended as an inference about Scalia’s predilections. Nevertheless, it might have been a better idea to have Scalia tuning into “Una furtiva lacrima” from Verdi’s Tosca, which sound designer Eric Shimelonis does include later.
What Scalia never concedes as he reacts to what he’s hearing is that—while insisting musical notes are unchanging as are the unalterable words of the Constitution—a composer’s notes are affected by the emotion individual singers bring to them. He won’t admit to his emotion even as he gives in to it. This may be the biggest takeaway that The Originalist hands out.
The Originalist opened July 19, 2018, at 59E59 Theatres and runs to August 19. Tickets and information: 59e59.org