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There’s a depressing irony at the center of The Originalist, Arena Stage playwright-in-residence John Strand’s smooth, easily digested, genially middlebrow work of (recent) historical fiction about Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court’s longest serving and most divisive associate justice: The energetic young woman of color just can’t hang with the cranky old white guy.
This is not what you want to hear, probably, any more than it’s what I want to write. But “the notes are the notes,” as Strand’s Scalia declares in the first minute of the show’s 105, elucidating both his passion for opera and his strict constructionist view of the Constitution. (Sound designer Eric Shimelonis punctuates the show with selections from Puccini, Mozart, and five other Scalia-approved composers from antiquity.)
Edward Gero, a venerable artist whose physical resemblance to Scalia was more than casual to begin with, told the New York Times he spent more than a year researching the part. The justice even allowed the actor to join him for lunch in his chambers last December after Gero watched the court hear oral arguments.
The performance that’s emerged from all that homework is a magnificent theatrical recreation of the jurist whose acerbic wit and flair for dramatic oratory is esteemed among even that half of the country (in Strand’s ballpark math) that detests him. Gero is, well, supreme. If The Originalist were a feature-length monologue—like Thurgood, the Laurence Fishburne-starring biography of Justice Thurgood Marshall that played the Kennedy Center in 2010—it might’ve been a masterpiece. And let me be clear, to quote Scalia’s least favorite chief executive: It’s good. But Gero’s Scalia must share the stage, and the foil Strand has given him is more a punching bag that the “sparring partner” the script protests too much that she is.
Suspend for a moment your disbelief that Scalia might allow a young black woman who characterises her precise strain of liberalism as “flaming” to become his Jiminy Cricket—a premise that “taxes the credulity of the credulous,” as the justice quipped in one of his more notable recent dissents. Kerry Warren’s performance as Cat, the idealistic Harvard Law grad who interrupts her way into a gig as his clerk, just doesn’t have the moves to carry the interludes when Gero is in the wings.
In Warren’s defense, Strand hasn’t given her much to work with: Everything about her character feels schematic and pat, especially her easy-to-guess vulnerability and the easy-to-guess tragedy in her past that makes her (temporary) abhorrence of firearms personal. She’s not bad, but she is badly overmatched. Broad, blond Harlan Work fares better as Brad, a true-believing toady who envies Cat’s intimate professional rapport with his hero. ”You’re a toy,” he tells her. “You amuse him.”
The play pivots on United States v. Windsor, the landmark 2013 gay rights decision in which the court ruled 5-4 that restricting a federal interpretation of marriage to heterosexual couples was unconstitutional. Scalia, of course, was the most vocal member of the minority. The stakes of that case were huge, but the piece of it at issue in The Originalist is small potatoes: It comes down to Cat lobbying her boss to add a few conciliatory words to his scorched-Earth dissent allowing that “one’s political opponents are not monsters” and that the case stirred “passion by good people on all sides.” There’s plenty more empathy where that came from, all you homosexual sodomites and homosexual-sodomite-friendly not-monsters!
And what does Scalia get out of this exchange? The pleasure of initiating a liberal, city-dwelling lady jurist into the mysteries of firearms, for one thing. Just when it seems The Originalist couldn’t feel any more like a buddy cop movie in which the constant bickering nurtures a deep mutual affection, Strand throws in a scene of Scalia and Cat bonding at a shooting range. (Justice Elena Kagan says Scalia has taken her hunting with him on several occasions, so there may be some precedent for this.)
The pleasant-but-slight impression we’re left with is that of a long episode of The West Wing. Like a lot of Aaron Sorkin’s work, it’s glib and careful to flatter its audience for being sharp enough to keep up, and it practically rolls over and presents its belly to be rubbed for depicting a social conservative as a man of loyalty and decency. Very well, then: Attaboy!
The Originalist is a warm, deeply conventional “well-made play” that assures us the sharpest minds on each side of the ideological divide are listening to one another respectfully and working late into the night to do the right thing. “His mind works in arias,” Cat rhapsodizes once her boss has fully charmed her. Arias, as she must know, have room for only one voice.
Passion Play, MacArthur Fellow Sarah Ruhl’s echoing backstage drama set during rehearsals for Easter pageants in three distinct eras, is so animated with emotional intelligence and rich in imagistic concern that it made my brain’s reflexive attempt to work out exactly what it all means feel petty and small and, well, unimaginative.
First performed a decade ago at Arena Stage, Ruhl’s prismatic triptych gives us more or less the same set of personalities working their way through more or less the same sequence of events in Northern England circa 1575; in Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany, in 1934; and in Spearfish, S.D., circa 1969-74. Its narrative patterns include a Pontius Pilate (Jon Hudson Odom) jealous of his more popular brother (Benjamin Cunis) who plays Jesus; and a Virgin Mary (Laura C. Harris) who gets knocked up via torrid affair with a castmate. (This problem wouldn’t seem to come to a head during the passion play-within-the-play unless rehearsals go on for months, but chalk that one up to the dream logic that holds sway throughout.) Shayna Blass imbues her three Marys Magdelene with soulful conviction; Jonathan Feuer turns in a funny performance as a director who functions as a walking parody of pretentious artists. Tonya Beckman’s handful of scenes as the reigning monarchs of each era are literally showstopping. If you don’t already know the play, I’d advise against opening your program until afterward, lest you spoil a few surprises.
Forum Artistic Director Michael Dove has taken an wonderfully low-fi approach to the staging. (He shares credit for the scenic design with Andrew Cissna.) The playing space is a paneled wood surface with scaffolds stacked high with paint cans at either end of the Round House Theatre Silver Spring’s hangar-like black box. The two halves of the audience gaze out at one another across the stage, each half unconsciously competing with the actors for the other half’s attention. (It’s always fun to watch a rapt audience watch a play.) At the top of each act, stagehands wheel out racks of designer Chelsey Schuller’s just-slightly otherworldly costumes and the actors pull them on in front of us, emphasizing the theatricality of the enterprise. And what actors: The 11-member cast is the strongest and most harmonious I’ve seen this year. No one is weak, and several—everyone I’ve named so far, plus Matt Dewberry, who plays a friar, an Englishman abroad, and a sympathetic Veterans Affairs psychiatrist—are extraordinary.
There’s an intermission between each of the three acts; a necessity in a performance that taxes the glutes, if not the attention span, at a runtime of 220 minutes. It feels like the right length. You can’t sprint through a dream; you have to float. In its final third, the piece acquires a contemporary urgency, casting the superb Odom as a Vietnam veteran who finds it impossible to reconnect with his wife (Harris) and daughter (Megan Graves) upon his return from combat. Odom and company have earned what his character never could: an unconditional victory.
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. $90–$110. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.
Forum Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $30–$35. (240) 644-1390. forum-theatre.com.