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The Originalist

Edward Gero gives a bravura performance as polarizing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in an engrossing and surprising new three-character play in Arena Stage production now premiering in NYC.

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Edward Gero and Tracy Ifeachor in a scene from “The Originalist” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

While conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia may have been “the most polarizing figure in American civic life,” there can be little doubt that actor Edward Gero gives a bravura performance as the jurist in John Strand’s The Originalist, now having its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters. This fictional biography which uses excerpts from Scalia’s dissents and opinions is part courtroom drama, part debate and partly a portrait of a man who never compromised on his convictions. Molly Smith’s Arena Stage production is both riveting and enlightening. You may not agree with Scalia’s conservative opinions but The Originalist humanizes him while it dramatizes the workings of the Supreme Court.

In what easily could have become a one-man show, playwright Strand has cleverly created dramatic tension by first introducing us to a second character and later a third. Set during the 2012-2013 term of the Supreme Court, the play begins with a lecture by Scalia to a law class where he explains his philosophy of being an “originalist,” that is, someone who interprets the Constitution as it was originally written and understood by its drafters in 1789. This presupposes that it is not a living document that should  reflect each era, but something carved in stone which does not change but may need interpretation.

He is interrupted by a heckler, Cat, a liberal African-American woman graduate of Harvard Law School (from which Scalia had also graduated) who challenges him on his dissent on Roe v. Wade. However, Cat has an ulterior motive. She has applied to be one of Scalia’s four law clerks for the 2012-13 year and wants to make a strong impression on him. Next we meet them at Cat’s interview where she fears that her adversarial attitudes will disqualify her. However, the justice surprises her and us by choosing her to be his “law clerk and sparring partner,” while she discovers a new mentor in her journey toward being a better lawyer.

Edward Gero in a scene from “The Originalist” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

In the course of the play’s eleven scenes leading up to the United States v. Windsor case led to the ruling on same-sex marriage in America, we see them debate gun control, work out on a rifle range, play cards and debate law and constitutional issues. Unknown to Scalia, Cat is also dealing with the serious illness of her father who she has been trying to impress with her accomplishments. We hear about Scalia’s well-known interest in opera while famous arias cover the scene changes. And finally, Cat is confronted by Brad, a new research assistant, a former conservative Republican rival of hers in her class at Harvard.

Gero makes Scalia into a colorfully pugnacious and three-dimensional character. Whether you agree with him or not, he humanizes him and brings sympathy to a justice who believes that it is not his job to let emotion, mercy or compassion sway him in his interpretation of the law but as a human being he can be as feeling as the next person. Gero’s portrayal is a towering achievement in a difficult role which could easily have been one-sided or totally callous and repugnant. You may still not admire him when the play is over but you will certainly know what motivates his decisions and applaud his unflinching integrity.

Tracy Ifeachor beautifully holds her own as the law clerk who is diametrically opposed to all that Scalia stands for. Her arguments are cogent and clear and the back and forth between the two sparring partners with 50 years between them is both exciting and provocative. Just as Scalia, she has surprises up her sleeve which subtly change our view of her as the play goes on. To some extent she is a stand-in for the audience who may question Scalia’s decisions but the play always gives a balanced view of their verbal fencing. Entering late in the story, Brett Mack as Brad becomes another thorn in Cat’s side, even much less sensitive to her feelings. His very outrageousness makes him an interesting character.

Tracy Ifeachor and Edward Gero in a scene from “The Originalist” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Smith’s direction is swift and powerful throughout; it defines the characters from the very first moment we meet them. The characterizations she has obtained from her actors are superbly nuanced. Misha Kachman’s unit set in which a desk and table appear when needed backed by red draperies works well for the Supreme Court, Scalia’s office and the other locales in and around Washington. The formal business wear costumes by Joseph P. Salasovich help to keep the distance between the characters as well as defining their roles. Colin K. Bills’ subtle lighting also lets us see things kept in shadow. The sound design by Eric Shimelonis gives us a haunting lesson in some of opera’s greatest arias.

A surprisingly deep play for summer theatergoing, John Strand’s The Originalist is provocative, stimulating theater. In this time of deep polarization, the play shows us two people from opposite sides of the fence who attempt to bridge the gap between them through argument and understanding. You may never have understood the law or the workings of the Supreme Court as fully until you see this outstanding play about real events and real people. Edward Gero’s robust and impressive performance will likely be one of the 2018-2019 season’s very best.

The Originalist (through August 19, 2018)

Middle Finger Productions, LLC in association with Arena Stage

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59E59.org

Running time: two hours with no intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (545 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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