‘The Originalist’ depicts Antonin Scalia as both mentor and scholar
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John Strand’s play “The Originalist,” now playing at the Court Theatre, is a character study, wrapped in an argument drama, inside a play about politically polar opposites becoming friends.
The character study at the core involves a three-dimensional portrait of Antonin Scalia, the late, conservative Supreme Court Justice, known for his intelligence, wit and deep Catholic faith as well as his adamantly right-wing views.
Scalia is played at the Court by a brilliantly cast Edward Gero, who has been with this work since its Washington, D.C. , inception in 2015, even before Scalia’s death. Gero comes across as the raison d’être of the evening. It’s an ideal performance; he doesn’t just look like Scalia but manages to help us understand how liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg could consider him her best friend on the court. He’s arrogant but charmingly charismatic, appreciating a good insult even when he’s the subject of it.
His foil in all this comes in the form of Cat (a strong, earnest Jade Wheeler), a Harvard Law-educated African-American lesbian with decidedly liberal views whom Scalia hires as a clerk. Yes, it’s an absurd contrivance, even if it takes its cue from Scalia’s reputation for occasionally hiring clerks with liberal views. It’s also what makes the play entertaining to audiences in blue states, who wouldn’t generally be expected to be Scalia fans. The opportunity to have someone poke holes in his arguments can feel like paying a dollar to send your friendly nemesis into a dunk tank at a street fair.
Alas, we never do see Scalia metaphorically plunged in water; Strand is strong enough to know that signs of regret in Scalia would feel — and undoubtedly be — false. But it would be nice if Cat could come closer to the target at times. The title of the play suggests that Scalia’s belief in Originalism, that the constitution should be understood only the way its drafters intended, will come under scrutiny. It doesn’t really.
For example, when they argue about the Second Amendment, Cat doesn’t raise the issue that Scalia actually undid centuries of understanding of the intent by de-emphasizing the context of “well-regulated militias.” Instead she suggests the founders probably didn’t mean cannons. Weak! Scalia wins that one! And now, off to a firing range for him to show her how to shoot a semi-automatic.
The debates on affirmative action and gay marriage also get presented within the frame of sympathy versus a hard-headed view of the Constitution. If Scalia only had a heart, Cat implies (and sometimes even says), he’d rule differently, or at least write with greater compassion. To Scalia, Cat relies on emotion rather than convincing argument. The take-away here, a bit frustrating and probably not completely intended, is that Originalism can’t be dissuaded with logic.
So the character study works, but not so much the argument drama, which is stimulating but unfulfilling. Which leaves us with the relationship aspects of “The Originalist.”
This is a play where people with opposing views come to respect, and genuinely like, each other. A third character — a tea-party-ish former classmate of Cat’s named Brad (an effectively smack-able Brett Mack) — propounds on politics over ideas and leaks Cat’s sexuality to the media.
In contrast, Scalia cares about Cat, counseling her on faith and dropping everything when he hears about her father’s illness. At the start, he suggests that clerks are changed profoundly by the Justice they serve, but not the other way around. He backs off that statement by the end.
It’s a bit sentimental, but not too much, and ultimately, in addition to the strong acting and the refined simplicity of Molly Smith’s direction and Misha Kachman’s set design (a couple of chandeliers, a red curtain and a few pieces of furniture), it won me over to this play. It depicts robust, aggressive, passionate disagreement in a context of respect and developing friendship. It accepts power and winning as measures of success, but decency and kindness as even more important measures of a person. In that regard, it feels like a play we need right now.