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Written by John Strand; directed by Molly Smith
Performances through August 19, 2018
Edward Gero and Tracy Ifeachor in The Originalist (photo: Joan Marcus)
I never thought I’d be pining for the halcyon days of kinder, gentler Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But John Strand’s The Originalist—a creaky, at times compelling two-hander about the fiercely conservative Scalia and a fiercely liberal law clerk he hires to spar with—does just that, showing us that the United States, though deeply divided for decades, at one time had civility, honor and respect even among those who vehemently disagreed.
Strand’s Scalia is a brilliant legal mind with a sarcastic, superior—even haughty—attitude, and who enjoys, as he sees it, putting liberals in their rightful place with his analysis of how the Constitution’s framers saw the law. Scalia decides to hire Kerry (called Cat) as his law clerk for the 2012-13 term—she’s his opposite in every way: liberal, lesbian and black.
Their literal sparring matches—at times, Scalia mentions boxing—form the core of the play, which moves along quickly if familiarly as opposites attract with a grudging respect despite their political divide. When Scalia has a chance to kill gay marriage, Cat even helps prepare his dissent, along with another clerk, the conservative, straight—and very white—Brad.
Strand writes clever dialogue that allows his antagonists to go at it like bitchy Edward Albee characters. Of course this leaves little room for nuance in the writing, and Tracy Ifeachor’s Cat suffers for it. She’s shrill and unlikable, the fault more of the author than the actress.
But that liability lets Edward Gero’s gregarious Scalia soar. It’s easy to see why ultra-liberal Ruth Ginsberg was his best friend even beyond their affinity for opera. (Director Molly Smith’s slick production includes excerpts from operas by Verdi, Strauss and Mozart, along with other classical works that show off Scalia’s erudite side.) Gero sidesteps caricature even while enacting a larger-than-life figure that owes far more to Scalia the myth rather than the reality.
But even Gero can’t fix the play’s ignominious end, when—after their professional relationship ends—the former adversaries meet again at the gun range where Scalia took Cat against her will. But now the formerly embarrassingly bad shooter has become a decent markswoman, and Scalia is pleased. Such leaden dramatic irony makes for a tidy wrap-up, but also shows that The Originalist is as flawed as its lead character’s infamous jurisprudence.
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
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