By Tristan Lejeune
In today’s hyper-polarized America, any intelligent piece of entertainment that honestly seeks meaningful engagement between the left and the right is to be applauded.
The crowd at Wednesday’s opening night of the return of The Originalist to Arena Stage certainly agreed — I’ve rarely seen such an enthusiastic standing ovation, and D.C. theatre crowds seem to love to clap on their feet. But I’ll admit I was left wondering what the big deal was.
John Strand’s play, which debuted at Arena in 2015, when its main character, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, was still alive and serving on the bench, reminds one of an episode of the The West Wing. It has grade-A political discussion and dialogue (and this time, the conservative isn’t just a punching bag!), but C- story structure. It’s great that Scalia and the young, liberal clerk who serves as his sparing partner really engage and change each other, but do they have to engage and change each other so obviously?
From the first scene, which finds Scalia (Edward Gero) addressing the Federalist Society, rhapsodizing about how the Constitution is like the libretto on which the notes of the United States are written, he gets challenged by Cat (Jade Wheeler), a recent Harvard Law School grad with more honors than plans. Improbably, her lack of respect for boundaries lands this “flaming liberal” a clerkship with the most famously right-wing jurist in the last 40 years.
In his chambers and at the shooting range, “Nino” and Cat fence over SCOTUS cases regarding abortion, gun rights, church-and-state — you know, all the fun ones. He is contentedly safe on the Second Amendment; she smells which way the wind is blowing on gay rights.
Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, there will be times when you want to tap in and take over one side of an argument or the other. There are points that get blown past, others that aren’t mentioned but should be. Strand’s script is to be commended for trying to find middle ground, but giving equal time to both sides means avoiding most conclusions.
There are no complaints to be made about the debaters themselves under the direction of Molly Smith. Returning to the role of Scalia, Gero brings a truckload of studied facial expressions and gestures, but his performance rises above mere mimicry. He gets to the heart of a showboating, caustic legal scholar who gleefully claims to have none. And Wheeler, in a role she, too, has played before, gives no ground as the voice of left-wing millennials. Like any good lawyer, Wheeler uses her emotions as weapons and never shows her entire hand. The next generation gets to write the epitaphs, she reminds him acidly, in what could be the play’s thesis.
But by the time this long-for-a-one-act play nears its conclusion, you realize you’ve known the final destination all along. “Do they both learn and grow?!” you ask. Turns out. Bowl me over with a feather.
The easiest and least-shocking trick The Originalist pulls off is treating Scalia like a man, not a monster. He’s funny and warm, even at his most self-satisfied. But like the real-life leader of the high court’s right flank, he leaves us with a lot to argue about.