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A CurtainUp Review
At the 59E59 Theaters, Strand's sharp dialogue draws a character study of the audacious spirit, feisty charm and brilliant mind of the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (Edward Gero) and how he interpreted the Constitution.
When the play puts this pugnacious jurist into the ring with Cat (Tracy Ifeachor)— a young liberal clerk, an African-American lesbian who's just out of Harvard Law —, he is up against a bright young mind who sees things differently. While their positions hint at upcoming clashes, Cat is no punching bag for the world-class jurist. She gives as good as she gets, searching for a middle ground as they dig into the meaning of the 230-year-old Constitution and its place in the 21st century.
Put briefly, "originalism" is an umbrella term for the Constitution as it was written, how ordinary people of the time understood its meaning and Scalia interprets it. Cat's view is more liberal. Like former President Barack Obama, she believes that the interpretation must reflect the changing norms of an evolving society. From these two corners of the ring, it is easy to see how cases involving gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action are all rich fodder for vivid argument, analysis and adjudication.
Actor Edward Gero, a four-time Helen Hayes Award winner, knew the late jurist well and paints the larger-than-life Scalia with a love-hate spirit, a stout theatrical intellect performing from the bench. A devout Catholic, Scalia was controversial, often called racist and homophobic, vitriolic, even a "monster;" and yet colleagues, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, praised him as warm and generous. Ginsburg, his opposite in Constitutional thinking, claimed, "We were best buddies." Their legal disagreements remained intellectual, not personal. "We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation."
Tracy Ifeachor, a British classically-trained actress gives Cat a robust conviction and inflexibility. She pushes him to consider consensus and prods him to show his "humanity." As their relationship develops, he grows to trust and respect her, even admitting to her his personal disappointment when overlooked for Chief Justice. In their madcap opposing ways, Cat tries to warm his edges; he teaches her to fire a rifle, he comes to support her when her father dies even as their disagreements are often self-absorbed tirades, in their arguments on Roe v. Wade, gun control and affirmative action.
Ifeachor makes a suitable, if unequal foil for Scalia. "Unequal" because Gero's portrayal is a tour-de-force, drawing all eyes and ears to his Scalia.
Says Cat, "How could someone so smart be so wrong? Society has changed, even the church has changed, and now the law is changing — but you’re stuck, alone, in your bunker. The 'Originalist'. Talking to yourself."
The play's standout moments come in 2013 as they prepared to untangle United States v. Windsor and DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act). Scalia names Cat chief clerk to write a summary for his dissent to the court's decision leading to legal same-sex marriage. At the last moment, Cat is pleased to hear the normally unbending Scalia's last minute addition of one of her lines to his dissent, "Few public controversies inspire such attendant passion by good people on all sides."
In a secondary supporting part, Brett Mack plays a smug clerk, Brad, distained by both Cat and Scalia. The one-on-one confrontations between Cat and Brad are raucous but not inspiring and are the least compelling parts of the play.
Set designer Misha Kachman is efficient with an imposing desk, chairs and chandelier in front of a red velvet curtain. The 59E59 stage is thrust forward, and some audience members sit on sides of the stage. Opera music fills the transitions, something Antonin Scalia would have appreciated.
The Originalist originally opened to acclaim at the Washington DC's Arena Stage in 2015 (CurtainUp DC critic's review) and its timeliness now is particularly glaring. Directed with a sure hand by Molly Smith, we see Scalia strike his targets with accuity and depth of intellect, something lacking today as the country watches political disagreements increasingly mean-spirited and scringe-worthy. Despite your position, you must still wonder with Cat how consensus has become such a dirty word in American politics.
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The Originalist by John Strand
Director: Molly Smith
Cast: Edward Gero, Tracy Ifeachor, Brett Mack
Set Design: Misha Kachman
Costume Design: Joseph P. Salasovich
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Sound Design: Eric Shimelonis
Production Stage Manager: Susan R. White.
Produced: Middle Finger Production, LLC [Beth Newburger, Executive Producer] and Arena Stage
Running Time: One hour, 45 minutes. No intermission.
Theatre: 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison).
Tickets: Single tickets are $25 - $70 ($25 - $49 for 59E59 Members). At Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at www.59e59.org tain
Performances: Tues.-Fri. at 7 PM ; Sat, & Sun. at 2 PM & 7 PM
Previews: 07/14/18. Opens: 7/19/18. Closes: 08/19/18.
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 07/17/18
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