The title of Heidi Schreck’s play may sound academic, but Schreck, also the star, comes on like gangbusters in setting forth her ideas, mostly geared to the battles women have fought to make the U.S. Constitution work for them. The setting is an American Legion hall with walls plastered with pictures of men. Schreck is the contrasting woman in front of them, and she makes the most of the distinction.
Playing herself, Schreck recounts how at the age of 15 she prepared a speech about the Constitution and went around entering debates that earned her money from the Legion to pay for college. Then she charmingly morphs into that smart teenager to give an example of her verbal and analytical skills in illustrating her teenage routine. Maximizing her youthful persona, Schreck makes this segment extremely entertaining, as she views the Constitution as a witches’ cauldron rather than the patchwork quilt that her unseen opponent has envisioned.
As the direction by Oliver Butler gets off to a spirited start, Schreck oozes a blend of humor and wisdom, and after maximizing the 15-year-old shtick, she returns to her 47-year-old self and recounts her family history going back to her great grandmother’s life as a woman. She describes a past history of spousal abuse that she has uncovered. She tells of her own problem with an unwanted pregnancy that she wanted to keep from her mother, with whom she is close, as she went on what she characterized as a vacation to take care of the situation. Of course, all of these aspects feed into her portrait of how the Constitution relates or does not relate to the lives of women, and references to today are obvious.
Schreck is very strong at commanding the stage, and she also has a winsome personality, with the ability to deliver humorous asides underscored by well-timed pauses and expressions. She also uses recorded excerpts from Supreme Court arguments, and an especially strong recorded statement by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Eventually Schreck moves into another phase, setting up a debate between her and a New York high school student. The topic: Should we abolish the U.S. Constitution? At the performance I attended the student speaking in favor of abolishing the document was feisty Rosdely Ciprian. (Alternating in the role at designated performances is Thursday Williams.) Schreck assumes the position of defending the Constitution. Mike Iveson who starts as the American Legion debate overseer, now assumes the role of encouraging the audience to cheer or boo loudly in reaction to the points made.
That section goes over well, but the intermission-less hour and forty minutes show begins to seem over-long, especially when a gimmick is introduced. Someone from the audience is selected and given two cards, one of which he or she chooses to render the verdict of who is the debate winner. I generally recoil at audience participation ploys. This one extends the show unnecessarily, and in my view the play needs tightening. Still, that doesn’t vitiate the predominant success of what Schreck is unleashing on an audience that is not only in for a good time but is surely coming away vastly enlightened by the delving into the Constitution and especially the 9th and 14th amendments. (Iveson passes out copies of the Constitution to audience members.)
As my wife and I walked up the aisle on the way out, a man next to us, with no idea I was reviewing the show, enthusiastically said, “Heidi Schreck is our daughter!” It was as if he couldn’t wait to tell someone. His wife by his side was all smiles. I remarked how proud they should be, and asked, “How much of what she says is true?” Her dad replied. “Most of it.” The encounter was a pleasant coda to the evening’s delightful experience. At the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed April 3, 2019.