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Theatre in Review: The Originalist (Arena Stage/59E59)

Edward Gero, Tracy Ifeachor. Photo: Joan Marcus

Theatre companies can be tripped up by the exigencies of scheduling, especially when topical works are involved: Some months ago, the idea of presenting a cuddly comedy about the rabidly conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia may have seemed like a good, even daring, idea; the play was a hit for DC's Arena Stage. And, after all, as the current blockbuster documentary RBG points out, wasn't Scalia, who died in 2016, best pals with none other than that great liberal warrior-woman, Ruth Bader Ginsberg?

Then again, Scalia's death set off the fracas by which Mitch McConnell, violating every known norm of judicial appointments, put Merrick Garland, President Obama's choice, into a permanent deep freeze, instead presenting the Republic with the dubious gift of Neil Gorsuch and the prospect of a court tilted permanently to the right. And, as the nation gears up for what shows every sign of being a savage battle over Brett Kavanaugh, who has already demonstrated an alarmingly supine position when it comes to the concept of executive privilege -- even as practiced by the current occupant of the White House -- does anyone think that a healthy chunk of the New York theatre audience wants to see a play in which Scalia rants and raves for over an hour, only to be revealed as a teddy bear under the black robes?

It's a tall order, to be sure: This was the man who, musing on gay rights, essentially compared homosexuals to murderers and animal abusers. (That he later claimed this was a reductio ad absurdum was the sort of lazy, lame excuse that would have gotten his knuckles rapped by the nuns who taught him as a boy.) An ill-tempered sort given to bursts of spoiled-brat rage, he dismissed the court's vote on the legality of the ACA as "pure applesauce" and "interpretive jiggery-pokery." And he had an advanced degree in patronization: Let's not forget the time when, hearing a case about race-based admissions, he made the argument that "African-American students might fare better in a 'slower-track school' rather than more-competitive colleges." Like many of his political stripe, he was convinced that the liberal barbarians were at the gate, ready to take down civilization forever, and he was chosen to defend it -- by any means possible.

It would take a brave -- and monumentally skilled -- playwright to make something of this human hornet's nest, and while John Strand may have the requisite courage, he is deficient in other regards. The premise of The Originalist is pure sitcom, pitting Scalia against Cat, a young black female clerk, who stands against everything he believes in. "Just how liberal are you, anyway?" Scalia wonders. "Sir, I fall into the 'flaming' category," Cat replies. "Flaming. Probably every liberal's fate in the afterlife," he cracks. "Eternal hellfire?" asks the abashed Cat. "God's punishment for stubbornly refusing to see things as they are," he says. I was going to add "smugly," but that would be redundant. For nearly all of the play's running time, Scalia positively preens with self-satisfaction.

It's a setup designed to yield all sorts of crackling confrontations; trouble is, Strand struggles to make it minimally believable. The play begins with Scalia speaking to the Federalist Society; during the question-and-answer session, he is all but heckled with needling questions from Cat, who next turns up in his office, interviewing for a clerkship. It has been a while since I last tried to get a job, but, somehow, I suspect that attempting to make an ass, in public, of your prospective boss isn't the best way to go about it. The script never supplies a plausible reason why Cat wants the clerkship. For his part, Scalia says, "You will keep me in shape by advancing your untenable leftist arguments, which I will systematically destroy," adding, "Even if we can't cure you over the next twelve months, maybe we can upgrade your status...to 'recovering liberal.'"

Strand undermines his plot with tired television-comedy tropes. There's a scene in which Cat, alone in the office, puts on Scalia's robes, imitating his Grumpy Gus manner, only to be caught by him, allowing him to crack, "If you fail at law, I would not recommend acting." (If this is how people behave in our nation's halls of justice, I don't want to know about it.) They squabble over all the expected issues, but their arguments mostly yield lame cracks: "You liberals hate real freedom of choice -- unless it involves destroying fetuses." They play card games. He takes her to a shooting range where she learns the thrill of gunfire. And she makes several visits to her father, who is in a coma, leaving one with the dispiriting feeling that The Originalist is really a play about a young woman looking for a substitute parental figure. There is also, about two-thirds of the way through, a revelation about Cat's personal life that isn't so much a plot twist as a flagrant case of information withheld for strictly manipulative purposes. It also destroys any possibility of Cat being a credible character.

The role of Scalia is designed to be a rich dish for an actor to feast upon, and Edward Gero tucks into it with gusto -- perhaps too much so. He has been playing the role on and off since 2015 and if it ever was more astringent it is now being delivered with a wink and a nudge that only makes the character more irritating. As Cat, Tracy Ifeachor proves that British actors can struggle with American accents as much as vice versa; she adopts a tone as flat as the Kansas prairie; the utter lack of vocal variety and nuance proves fatal to a character already suffering from major credibility problems. Brett Mack is okay in the smaller role of a smart-ass conservative rival brought onboard by Scalia to goad Cat when she is tasked with authoring a brief against same-sex marriage, but one wishes the director, Molly Smith, had exercised a little more judicial oversight on her cast.

Strand does a decent job of exploring how Scalia's Roman Catholicism influenced his judicial thinking, and there's a fairly gripping passage in which Cat, on the offensive, probes his disappointment over not making chief justice; she lands a real blow when she points out that his intemperate opinions and inability to build consensus ultimately doomed his ambitions. The production also has a thoroughly sensible design package, featuring Misha Kachman's spare set, Colin K. Bills' tasteful lighting, and Joseph P. Salasovich's appropriate costumes. Eric Shimelonis' sound design provides fine reinforcement for the playlist of classical music hits specified by the script.

Too much of the time, however, The Originalist settles for easy, odd-couple comedy at the expense of character and real conflict. You won't be surprised to hear that tragedy strikes, and he proves to be a brick. And she manages to adulterate one of his most incendiary opinions. (The play's apparent message is that we should all learn to meet in the middle.) That we are supposed to find such an outcome both adorable and emotionally satisfying only demonstrates how out of touch with our current political reality this play is. -- David Barbour

(24 July 2018)

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