“But that is the secret of my charm: I tell people what they don’t want to hear.” And for the next two hours after Antonin Scalia (Edward Gero) utters this self-description, I’ll come to find out just how true that is. My father happens to be a huge Scalia fan, so his influence has always been in my periphery. However, I had no idea just who this man was. That’s not to say that this play is a biography or even a docu-drama; so the accuracy of the man’s personality must be taken with a grain of salt, and the engaging nature of the beast credited to Mr. Gero.
The Originalist touches upon its titular topic – should the Supreme Court be beholden to the original intentions of the constitution or open it up to interpretation based on modern times? But truly the focus is on firm Originalist advocate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Cat (Tracy Ifeachor), the liberal law clerk he hires. He teaches her how to verbally box as she tries to find his heart, vivaciously debating controversies such as the death penalty, affirmative action, abortion, and gay marriage. With Cat dealing with personal tragedy and finding herself aiding a man whose rulings affect her on a personal level, she finds unlikely support in the aging judge. The Originalist questions what made this nation so insistent that strength is to be found in the extremes and in seeing only monsters on the other side.
In a time when our nation is so divided – to the point that the three-year-old play now provokes laughter at how much worse it has gotten – what a time to consider the middle. What a time to put on a New York stage a production which I feel, at least, showed the conservative argument as well-reasoned and presented by the stronger debater. While the more progressive Cat certainly holds her own in the ring, her argumentation doesn’t really seem to grow and change, despite Scalia claiming it does. Ifeachor does the eager, but struggling “flaming liberal” justice, bringing charm and doubt and understandable rage in her moments alone or when going toe to toe with law school rival, the aptly named Brad (Brett Mack). However, she is sometimes overwhelmed by the magmatism of Gero, whether he’s conducting an opera, expounding upon his legal dissents, or breaking his heart remembering his rejection for Chief Justice and the changing tide of his legacy. As Cat accurately points out, the aging fear the young, for it is the next generation “who write the epitaph”.
The simple charm of Scalia and Cat’s relationship is doubled in a clever, yet elegant set design. Smooth transitions which reuse a few pieces or simple lighting choices create new spaces; the set is clean, but evocative. Having Scalia’s chambers emerge through red velvet curtains as a nod to the grandiosity of the government is a nice touch.
Though nothing is quite solved, the possibility of concessions on both sides is hinted at, leaving a resigned, but hopeful note to the still very relevant political production. And perhaps in this trying time, it is time to sit down at the table with monsters. While they might still be monsters, The Originalist shows that they might have a heart nonetheless.