By William Wolf

THE ORIGINALIST  Send This Review to a Friend

Given my opposition to most of the votes by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, I came to “The Originalist” with a great deal of skepticism. Surprisingly, I find the play with Scalia at the center of it engaging and intellectually stimulating, even though nothing changes my opinions. Yes, a lot of the back and forth arguments in chambers between Scalia and his clerk as depicted seem unlikely, but they are nonetheless engrossing, thanks largely to the acting as well as the writing by playwright John Strand.

The drama, crisply directed by Molly Smith and presented by Middle Finger Productions, LLC in association with Arena Stage, stars the excellent Edward Gero as Scalia, and he quite resembles the justice. He is a larger than life presence on stage, with a booming voice, a confrontational manner and likable as a person whether or not one agrees with his decisions. He reminded me of seeing the film “RBG,” which shows the warm friendship between him and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg despite their polarized views.

Tracy Ifeachor is appealing and convincing as Cat, the black lesbian clerk Scalia hires, a feisty, especially bright and liberal young woman who provides the counterpoint to the judge’s views in impassioned arguments that open the way for clarifying legal positions.

Scalia is dogmatic and passionate about explaining his Originalist stance. He argues that the U.S. Constitution should be followed as it stands, with current issues of social change not explicitly covered in the Constitution formulated by Congress, not be decreed from the bench. This view, to cite examples, results in rulings against such issues as the right of women to have abortions and the rights of gays and lesbians. Scalia cloaks all of this as in line with democracy. Cat accuses him of hypocrisy. (The second amendment to the Constitution, if one adheres to the letter of it, speaks of the right to bear arms in relation to security of a free state, not to everyone being able to walK around with automatic rifles.)

Scalia, who becomes a mentor to Cat, is depicted as relishing intellectual combat while always sure of his positions, although there is a point in the play when he bends to include wordage that she wants him to insert to make his dissent, with which she disagrees, at least more human.

There is a side drama involving Cat and Brad, well-acted by Brett Mack, an obnoxious right-wing clerk with a lower status and jealous of her position. He threatens to smear her for being a lesbian in order to curry favor with Scalia. This goes on a bit too long as a distraction, although eventually being pulled together to enable a point to be made.

The playwright favors opposing sides finding a middle ground in order for our country to advance in contrast to present polarization. Good luck with that. I stand firm in my belief that the liberal four of the current court have the high ground in the face of the court being about to swing to the right. “The Originalist” will not change views of those who share that opinion, but despite some of the play’s hokum, it has the advantage of laying out issues sharply and a performance by Gero that makes Scalia come dramatically alive even if one opposes votes he cast in the Supreme Court. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Reviewed July 20, 2018.


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