Arena’s resident playwright John Strand has developed an affectionate, quite delightfully complex, fictionalized account about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Strand’s The Originalist has plenty to chew on thanks to the confident direction by Arena’s Molly Smith and a small cast anchored by Edward Gero as Scalia and Kerry Warren as Cat, Scalia’s fictional, progressive-minded law clerk.
Both Gero and Warren are buffed-up up for what is an animated, often fiery, argumentative evening of verbal fluency and debate about the Constitution and each other’s heart and soul. Who knew that a reasonably balanced, verbally fluent and often enough legal language- based examination about the Constitution with pithy attacks by two characters could be so appealing?
The Originalist works overtime to humanize the two verbal warriors providing a number of interior, personal aspects to them. For passionate stalwarts on either side of a heated American political spectrum, be forewarned; this is not an evening of Rocky-like standing with arms held high in victory, but of punches, counter punches, jabs and a few clinches. There are no long-count knockdowns and no knockout or even a TKO as the two verbal pugilists go at it. Even if they are in vastly different weight classes, both Gero and Warren go the distance. Any end of bout decision is left to you as ring judge. Oh, and there is one stock character dirty fighter; but he is part of the undercard for the main event.
The play is set in the Supreme Court term that ended in June 2013. The Originalist is an impressionistic journey over a great deal of terrain climaxing with issues centering on the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to overturn Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by a 5 to 4 majority in United States v. Windsor. The decision declared it “a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.” The DOMA decision clarified for federal law the operative meaning of the terms “marriage” and “spouse.” (While not specifically mentioned in the play, it is not insignificant to note that DOMA was signed into law by then President Bill Clinton in 1996 with this signing statement.
Justice Scalia was in dissent in the 2013 DOMA ruling and issued a ripping written opinion. In the fictional The Originalist, Scalia’s law clerk Cat advises him to add a dozen words or so, not to change his dissent in substance, but to give a kinder, gentler framing to his staunchly-held views. The non-fictional, Supreme Court decision is here.
Gero is a raging bull presence. Over the course of the play Gero, as Justice Scalia, provides what is behind his view point about being an Originalist. He speaks often that the Supreme Court should and must follow the original meaning or intent of the framers of the Constitution. When Warren, as Cat, pushes back with real life examples to counter a text-driven approach, she is greeted with the spicily presented remark that “passion is no match for the text.” Through it all the two, passionately and pugnaciously, debate using whatever they have in their arsenal.
As Justice Scalia, Gero performs with a wide, joyously presented litany of brusque, condescending, swaggering, taunting and biting exposition. Overall, Gero pushes and pokes with an attitude toward Warren of “argue with me…come on, give me your best stuff.” His examples to Cat of strong fighters are names such as Hillary Clinton and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Yet there are moments in scenes when his manner is softened into a truly caring fatherly-figure attitude.
Warren, making her Arena Stage debut, comes across as sharp, confidant in her legal stance and far from awe-struck even though she is required to use “Sir” or “Justice” when addressing Gero’s Scalia. As the production progresses, she makes clear she is on “his team,” working with that as her mantra as she prepares Court material for him. Heck, her fictional journey includes learning to play cards and becoming proficient with a semi-automatic weapon.
The only other character in the production is Harlan Work who plays Brad, a conservative foil to Cat. Cat and Brad are the same age, but he is a member of the Federalist Society. His character is written as a somewhat stock character type. He comes across as a “suck-up” not unwilling to use whatever means necessary to get his way. A strangely configured “food fight” between the two that gets out-of-hand is the major physical action in the play.
The designers have given Gero sumptuous operatic music to accompany his entrances courtesy of Sound Designer Eric Shimeloinis. There is a minimalist set design that used a thrust stage for Arena’s Kogod Cradle with desks, a few chairs, some heavy red curtains, two large chandeliers and some theatrical uses of a small stage elevator from Set Designer Misha Kachman. Lighting by Colin K. Bills is especially effective as a mood setting devise when The Originialist moves from Constitutional arguments to scenes of the personal and human.
I want to lay out two issues that are not small “buts,” that distracted me even in its fictional history. These could be based on my own long-time experience in this town working with elected and appointed officials.
I found it difficult to accept that a Supreme Court Justice would hire someone to a clerkship who is so clearly and totally opposite in viewpoint. In a town in which loyalty and trust can matter as much as competence, it just doesn’t feel on point. Would such a vast difference in viewpoint as depicted in The Originalist really allow for easy trust and loyalty in such a charged and secret atmosphere as the Supreme Court? Really? I am just not convinced. Now, if Justice Scalia would write and let me know that such is possible, I will withdraw my dissent.
Also, the play is focused on two individuals in such a major, unequal power relationship. The play seems to gloss over that in its own way. The reason that the political play Nixon’s Nixon worked for me is that the protagonists, Nixon and Kissinger, were closer to each other in so many attributes. Scalia and Cat just aren’t.
So bring your own understanding and ideas of Justice Antonin Scalia to the Arena’s Kogod Cradle and decide for yourself. Let The Originalist challenge your current beliefs. Perhaps it will help us all evolve, that current DC au currant word.
Arena wins praise for taking a risk in creating a fictional drama about a Justice Scalia. It is accomplished in a manner that invites you and engages and does plenty more. See it and then go out an argue about it not with friends who hold the same opinion as you do, but with someone you know and personally like but who sees things a bit differently.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission.
The Originalist plays through April 26, 2015 at the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.
The Originalist review by Robert Michael Oliver on DCMetroTheaterArts.