We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Weeknight tickets to Arguendo, an inventive but frivolous bit of comic theater derived from a 1991 Supreme Court case, start at $70, which works out to about a dollar per minute. No wonder Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company—which did not produce the show, created by New York City’s avant-garde performance troupe Elevator Repair Service, but is hosting it—has arranged for every performance of the run to be followed by a post-show discussion featuring jurists and/or writers conversant in legal affairs. Last week’s press night performance featured some of the biggest names of the bunch: Emily Bazelon (who was also a consultant on the project), David Plotz, and Hanna Rosin, all of Slate, plus Elevator Repair Service Artistic Director John Collins. But even that lively discussion didn’t take long to acknowledge that the case in question, Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc.—about the constitutionality of South Bend, Ind.’s enforcement of its ban on “public” nudity inside the walls of an adults-only nightclub, which the court ultimately upheld—feels awfully quaint a generation later. Collins himself pointed out that the threat of an impressionable person being somehow forever scarred by a glimpse of a live, unclothed body seems far-fetched when pornography (or, I’ll add, a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which was the subject of an earlier Supreme Court case, in 1964) is mere clicks away in most homes.
Elevator Repair Service uses a cast of five, each playing multiple roles, to dramatize their compressed version of the actual oral arguments of Jan. 8, 1991. Only three actors represent the nine Justices at any given time (there’s a lot of double and triple-casting), which makes things confusing right away. (Also, who remembers the makeup of the William Rehnquist court? Woolly has helpfully positioned a nearly life-size photograph of that court lineup in the lobby.) Most of the humor comes from the way the justices nonverbally make known their displeasure or distraction, or confer in whispers among themselves as each attorney presents his argument, although these gifted comic actors—in order of appearance, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, and Ben Williams—can wring a laugh from an inflection, too. Behind the elevated panel where the justices are seated (though they eventually roll their chairs to the lip of the stage to menace the two attorneys behind the podium), projections zoom in and out of the relevant sections of case law, offering visual razzle only—-the projections move too quickly to be legible, which I suppose is part of the joke. (It is funny when the bored justices start manipulating the onscreen text just to amuse themselves, meaning us.)
The show is at its best when it deviates from the day’s argument to incorporate two bits from different pieces of period video Collins and company found in the course of their research. In one of them, Chief Justice Rehnquist (Knight) explains why he chose to have gold stripes added to his judicial robe. In another, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Sokol) talks about designing a custom collar for hers. Moments like these get at the fundamental secrecy of the court’s deliberations—another thing Collins talked about in that postshow—and hint at the possibilities of a piece that would delve more deeply into that.
One can’t help but think Arguendo would have a lot more argumojo were it to apply its technique to a case of more contemporary or lasting relevance: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, for example. But because the case is about public nudity, from a primordial era when the sight of Dennis Franz’s alcoholic, racist-but-trying-to-change, bare white ass in primetime on NYPD Blue was still a few years off, the impulse to shrug becomes overwhelming. This feels like the sort of thing that could be a delightful discovery during the Capital Fringe Festival for $17 per ticket. At four to five times that freight, though, its neither-fish-nor-fowl provenance becomes prohibitive: It’s too long to be a successful comic sketch, and yet too thin to feel nourishing.
Its comic crescendo comes when Iveson, in the role of attorney Bruce J. Ennis, Jr., who argued on behalf of the nightclub and its dancers, doffs his clothes and starts dancing during his argument. It’s funny in the knee-jerk way that male nudity almost always is. Iveson is a perfectly ordinary-looking dude, neither athletic or statuesque, and his focus is admirable. But the sight of his penis flopping around ceases to be titillating or shocking before the brief show even ends. Like the show itself, it’s a curiosity whose sell-by date has passed.