By Donna Herman
The Originalist by John Strand, now playing at 59E59 Theaters through August 19th, is one of those plays. You’re either going to love it or hate it. Much like the subject matter itself, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But not so fast. The likes and dislikes won’t be broken down between party lines.
The Originalist is a three, well, two-and-a-half-character play that pits conservative, controversial Justice Antonin Scalia (Edward Gero) against feisty, leftist, just-out-of-law-school, African-American, female law clerk Cat (Tracy Ifeachor). The play is set in the 2012-2013 session of the Supreme Court and deals with the relationship between Scalia and Cat. Scalia is called one of the most polarizing figures in recent U.S. History, and one of the top 5 right-wing Supreme Court Justices. A leader of the Originalist movement, he sought to interpret the constitution based on what reasonable persons living at the time of its adoption would have understood the ordinary meaning of the text to be.
Scalia was known for his scathing attacks on his fellow justices in his voluminous dissents. He was also known for his opposition to affirmative action, abortion rights, the protection of gay marriage under the constitution, and his championship of gun ownership. it was also reported that he chose one liberal clerk a year.
The Originalist asks the question, what happens when monsters meet honestly and openly in the middle? It was a question that needed to be asked when the play was written in late 2014 and early 2015 when it seemed shocking that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t compromise. And it needs to be asked even more desperately now when they can’t agree on basic facts.
What The Originalist does brilliantly is to reveal the humanity and integrity behind each character. And to therefore declaw them. I doubt it will radically change anyone’s political opinions one way or another. Although it may help to understand the other side. Which is why Scalia always had a left-leaning clerk on his team. And in real life, it could lead to respect and compromise. I walked out of the theater in an uplifted and hopeful frame of mind. Which is not my normal state of mind when ruminating on politics these days.
Of course, it wouldn’t be possible were it not for the outstanding performances by Edward Gero and Tracy Ifeachor. John Strand has said he wrote the role for Edward Gero and there’s no question why he did so. Gero not only looks like him, but perfectly captures his shambling walk and signature gestures. More to the point, he radiates Scalia’s reported personal magnetism, quick wit and intensity. Ifeachor walks the line between feisty and compliant with one foot always dangling on the feisty side. She is as passionate and committed to her ideals as is her counterpart and willing to take the long view. It’s a brilliant match of talent.
The people who won’t like The Originalist will say it’s unrealistic. To them I say, where is it written that theater is supposed to be realistic?
The Originalist by John Strand, Directed by Molly Smith
WITH: Edward Gero (Antonin Scalia); Tracy Ifeachor (Cat); Brett Mack (Brad)
Set Design by Misha Kachman; Costume Design by Joseph P. Salasovich; Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills; Sound Design by Eric Shimelonis; NYC Casting Director, Geoff Josselson, C.S.A.; Casting Director, Amelia Acosta Powell, C.S.A.; Stage Managers, Susan R. White & Heathyr (Red) Verhoef; Assistant Stage Manager, Caskey Hunsader. Presented by Middle Finger Productions, LLC in Association with Arena Stage at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison) through August 19th. Performances Tuesday through Friday at 7PM, Saturday & Sunday at 2PM and 7PM. For tickets call 212-279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org