Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
And I'll tell you up front: this play's portrayal of legal research is not what legal research looks like; actual lawyers and judges do not discuss cases in the way these characters discuss cases and, even though I find it easy to believe Justice Scalia was the sort who would value honest debate over deferential butt-kissing, the law clerk in this thing crosses lines that would get any clerk fired. I'm not marking down for any of that. Legal research is not the sort of thing anyone would actually want to watch on the stage, and I'm allowing a certain amount of leeway for dramatic license.
What I am marking down for, though, is that the play could be so much better than it isand part of the problem comes from using the character of Justice Scalia, rather than a fictional conservative justice. The Originalist wants to be about trying to end the polarization of American politics, about seeing the people on the other side as human beings, not monsters. (In a bit of heavy-handed writing, the play makes the "monster" metaphor explicit, rather than leaving it in subtext, with law clerk Cat holding her arms above her head and growling when she feels she is being characterized as the "monster.") There are two reasons why this monster idea doesn't work with the character of Scalia. The first is that the play misses the point of its own title. Justice Scalia was an originalist; his judicial philosophy was that the Constitution means only what the founders originally intended it to mean. This should not be confused with political conservatism. Justice Scalia was consistent in his originalist leanings; if you could make a persuasive original intent argument which would result in a liberal conclusion, you could win his vote. Other justices have been more knee-jerk in terms of seeking a conservative result no matter how; Justice Scalia could be persuaded to side with the liberals if you gave him a reason that fit with his judicial philosophy. I've always thought arguing with Justice Scalia would present a fun challenge for a liberal, because he can be convinced if you win by his rules. But Cat never even tries to go there. Moreover, playwright John Strand presents Scalia as someone who thinks all liberals are always wrongdoing a disservice to who Scalia actually was, and missing the opportunity to show that some of his legal positions were not at all monstrous.
And the second reason why Strand errs by using Scalia in the role of monster is that, if you're paying attention, Scalia is not a monster from the start. He has an artistic soul when speaking of music; he speaks with genuine affection when discussing Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and he feels real human disappointment at being passed over for Chief Justice. More importantly, he takes a bold liberal clerk under his wing, when he has zero obligation to do so and could easily hire hundreds of well-qualified conservatives who wouldn't insult him on a daily basis.
Curiously, there is a monster in the play, a conservative young lawyer named Brad, who is, for some reason, invited by Scalia to help Cat work on one of his opinions. (I mark down for this, toothere is no reason for Scalia to invite someone from outside to help Cat do her job, particularly when he has three other law clerks who are available to provide Cat a conservative perspective.) But a good argument can be made that Brad is the real monster. He threatens to undermine Cat's job, and also tries to convince her to join his sidenot because he genuinely believes conservatism is correct, but because it pays better. Brad is the heartless, emotionless monster in the playbut if that's true, any incremental progress toward mutual understanding made by Cat and Scalia is worthless when the real monster remains unmoved.
The bright spot in the production is Edward Gero's performance as Scalia. His Scalia comes off as likeable and personable, while still aware that he's the most powerful (and, often, most hated) person in the room. He is simultaneously self-effacing and self-centered. It's a difficult line to walk, and he pulls it off admirably. Jade Wheeler is less successful as Cat, although part of the problem is a script that has her coldly quoting law from memory, growling like a monster, and having a conversation with a person in a coma who is not actually on the stagenone of which come off as natural. But Wheeler's Cat rarely sounds honest and human at all; there are only a few moments when she lets down her "lawyer" façade and lets truth happen. A character can learn to take emotion out of her legal arguments without the performer taking emotion out of her characterization, and we just don't see that enough from Wheeler's Cat.
I think, though, my biggest problem with The Originalist is how low it sets the bar for political discourse in America. Is thinking of the person on the other side as a human being, not a monster, really so foreign to us that we need a play about it? Perhaps the fact that I have spent two decades happily working in the court system with people of all different political philosophies makes me the wrong person to review this play. It also, apparently, makes me very lucky.
The Originalist runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through May 7, 2017. For tickets and information, see www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.
The Originalist by John Strand; Co-production with Asolo Repertory Theatre and Arena Stage; Director: Molly Smith; Scenic Design: Misha Kachman; Costume Design: Joseph P. Salasovich; Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills; Sound Design: Eric Shimelonis; Original Stage Manager: Susan R. White; Production Stage Manager: Hethyr 'Red' Verhoef; Stage Manager: Jessica R. Aguilar; Casting: Simon Casting Stuart Howard & Paul Hardt; General Manager: Joe Witt; Technical Director: Brad Enlow; Production Manager: Chris Cook