Theater

“The Originalist,” a Play About Justice Antonin Scalia, Shows Sympathy for the Devil

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Here in what feels like the sixth decade of the Trump presidency, a play that takes place during the Obama years and deals with that distant era’s major legal and political battles can fairly be classified as a period piece — the before-the-deluge kind in which a character says of our divided nation, “At least it can’t get any worse, right?” and the audience thinks, “Oh, honey. You have no idea.” The nasty twist ending that history and the swing states appended to the Obama presidency colors the viewer’s reaction to John Strand’s The Originalist in just that way (the color is, of course, orange). First produced by Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in 2015, and revised for a 2017 remount, the simultaneously topical and outdated piece focuses on the former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia near the end of his time on the bench. (He died in 2016.)

As Scalia looks back at a career that has made him loathed on the left and worshipped on the right for his staunch conservative views and the bulldog-ish way he expressed them in oral questioning and written opinions, the judge can point to significant blows he helped deal to liberal causes such as campaign finance reform and gun control. But at the same time, his vehement opposition has failed to stall the mainstreaming of affirmative action, abortion rights, and same-sex marriage. Serving on the court as an extremist at a time when its moderate voices had the most power in the big 5–4 decisions, the script’s vintage 2013 Scalia seems destined to be remembered less for his victories than for his blustering dissents and blinkered devotion to originalism. (The judicial answer to religious fundamentalism, that’s the notion that the Constitution should be applied exactly as the Founders intended back in the 1780s — and evidently, the Founders wanted to execute mentally disabled teenagers and allow citizens to stockpile semiautomatic weapons.)

What Scalia couldn’t know then was that his death while still in office, and the Republican-controlled Senate’s subsequent refusal to hold confirmation hearings during an election year for President Obama’s hand-picked successor, would clear the way for Trump’s nomination of the conservative Neil Gorsuch. And now that swing justice Anthony Kennedy is retiring, the GOP has the chance to drive the court sharply to the right, imperiling those liberal gains that provoked Scalia’s rancor. So his ghost gets the last laugh, while democracy has a good cry.

In Strand’s script, though, that’s still thunder in the distance. The playwright’s primary purpose here is a not-un-Obama-like striving to find the common humanity among political opponents. To that end, he pits his Scalia against Cat (Tracy Ifeachor), a fictional law clerk who, as a far-left-of-center gay black woman, falls into several of the demo groups that would stand to lose if Scalia got his way. He hires her, he says, because “every once in a while, I like to have a liberal around. It reminds me of how right I am.” But why does she take the job? In a monologue delivered to her unseen father, who’s lying in a coma (always a helpful way for characters to get their motives off their chests), Cat expresses a need to meet the “monster” in the middle. “We’ve bought into this stupid, childish left-right shit,” she says, “the whole world divided into darkness and light, like there’s nothing you can learn from the person on the other side.”

But the middle ground doesn’t have to be squishy, as demonstrated by Ifeachor’s solidly planted body language (chin up, eyes narrowed) and prosecutorial appraisal of Edward Gero’s Scalia during sparring matches in his chambers and at a firing range where he teaches her to shoot a rifle. Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith (who also oversaw the D.C. version) reinforces the sense of an adversarial matchup by keeping furniture to a minimum and placing the central pair in front of a bright red stage curtain that throws them into relief and suggests the theatrical nature of legal arguments. (The set design is by Misha Kachman.) The play’s only other character, Brad (Brett Mack), has the weakest spine: He’s an impeccably conservative rival for Cat’s job who’s willing to say whatever he thinks the big man wants to hear.

For a while, the show feels like Pygmalion in reverse, with Gero (who originated the role in D.C.) as a brilliant, arrogant, plummy-toned Henry Higgins trying to turn his Eliza Doolittle from decent to devious. At one point, he even has her working directly against her own self-interest, by helping to draft an opinion in favor of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. But Strand’s Scalia isn’t quite the devil incarnate. His Catholic faith is genuine; he has his hurts and disappointments (not ever making chief justice, for one); he’s nice to Cat when her father dies; and, after all, he’s friends with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Though Cat manages to resist the dark side, she’s able to connect with Scalia on a human level, the way you might do with a mean uncle at Thanksgiving. Scalia comes to see Cat as a human being, too, adding something to his DOMA opinion about how there are “good people on all sides” of the issue — another line that produces a contemporary shudder, thanks to Trump’s infamous Charlottesville response.

Ultimately, The Originalist is the sort of reasonable, civil call for compassion and compromise that liberals often make and conservatives rarely reciprocate. We’ll meet you halfway! says one side. We’ll take away your rights! says the other. In the age of Trump, reaching across the aisle is likely to leave you with a bloody stump — and, in real life, Scalia’s own vicious gnawing sure didn’t encourage the opposite. That’s why the play’s most chilling line goes to twerpy, consensus-averse Brad. “Four more years of Obama,” he predicts to Cat, “and this country will move so far to the right you won’t even recognize it.”

He might as well be singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

The Originalist
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
212-753-5959
59e59.org
Through August 19

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