Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Note: Though this review appeared online and in print for newspapers of the Southern California News Group, it was not posted here – for various reasons (but mostly the day job getting in the way) – until the day it closed. So, here it is, just as informational writing.
In the opening moments of John Strand’s “The Originalist,” the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is addressing a large group at The Federalist Society. For those who care to look, this is an elegant shorthand about his background. (If you need to know more, check out Jeffrey Toobin’s article in the April 17 copy of The New Yorker, which discusses that organization’s agenda, and its foundational drive to train and raise up originalist conservative judges.) It is also an immediate line in the sand: this man is incredibly secure in his view of the role of the judiciary, and will not be swayed.
Now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse, “The Originalist” offers up a potentially interesting discussion. Scalia has hired a liberal law school graduate to be one of his clerks. Though dismissed by some as a token – liberal, female, and Black – there is some indication that he wants her there so he can hone his own opinion by bouncing it off of the opposition. The playwright assures us that it “is a play about hope.” What the play wants to argue for is the idea of returning to a sense of the middle ground, of compromise. Indeed, by the end of the play, Scalia has actually taken one piece of this intern’s advice on wording. Still, that is not what most of the audience will come away with, for two reasons.
First, the Justice Scalia in the play comes off as a confident, extremely well-versed constitutional scholar willing to use shock language to make his point as he writes dissenting opinions on court rulings with which he fundamentally disagrees. He is quick to skewer those whose opinions don’t match his, in part with intellect, but in great part with a snide quality he takes great relish in. For those within hearing who agree with Scalia’s conservative views, this play thus becomes confirmation of their own views, especially on issues of individual rights. For many who are opposed to his opinions this play may seem an advertisement for a path they see as destructive to progress. Few will actually spend time absorbing the one brief moment of compromise as having much impact.
Second, there is an attempt to humanize Justice Scalia which also seems to jar with the persona one faces through most of the play. His moments of kindness seem pasted on, rather than allowed to become integral to the point at hand – that of being able to hear views not his own without belittling them. Of course, there is some reason for this. This is the man whose tone has been critiqued over time by scholars – not his originalism or his jurisprudence necessarily, but his tone. In the play he acknowledges this, and refers to himself as a monster, satirically but even so there is meat there.
However, though one can argue with the play itself, one cannot argue with the performances. Edward Gero makes such a good Scalia it’s almost spooky. He radiates confidence and that satiric absolutism without ever turning into a cartoon. Jade Wheeler gives the clerk, Cat, all the warmth and complexity that the script’s Scalia lacks, as she reasons her way through a difficult job while also dealing with difficult side issues. Brett Mack makes the insufferable young Federalist Society member and SCOTUS clerk wannabe, Brad, as annoying, and clueless about American social issues, as that sounds. Brad is, perhaps, the play’s only truly two-dimensional character, but Mack gives it what character one can.
Director Molly Smith has given this extremely talky, episodic tale a sense of movement and life which flows seemingly effortlessly from start to finish. Misha Kachman’s minimalist scenic design allows for the quick shifts needed to accomplish Smith’s goals. Indeed, there is craft throughout this piece, which is performed without intermission.
Still, one must look at the takeaway. Antonin Scalia was a complicated man who ended up on the wrong side of many SCOTUS decisions which advanced rights and governmental power in ways he felt were unConstitutional, because he was an originalist. This play does not really explore that complexity, but neither does it achieve its agenda of pushing the viewer toward the view Cat seems to be leaning into: that compromise is possible and all sides should be respected and heard. Certainly, the audience reactions I heard came, rather, from internal confirmation bias in one direction or the other, which is the exact opposite of the play’s intent.
What: “The Originalist” When: This show has closed Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena Info for future shows at the Playhouse: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org