by John Stoltenberg
The original The Originalist returns to Arena in a much larger house (The Kreeger, not the Kogod Cradle where it debuted in 2015). This is fitting. The play, the performances, and the production are so triumphally good that tuned-in theatergoers will be thronging.
For those who missed all the buzzy huzzahs during the play’s first Arena run, when it was extended twice due to popular demand, John Strand’s The Originalist is set in DC and centers on a fictional verbal sparring match between the arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his cheeky, liberal new law clerk, a black lesbian Harvard Law School grad named Cat. Their confrontation—a fizzy fusion of hilarity and erudition, of grammar games and intellectual gotchas—is as fun-to-watch-and-listen-to as any to be found on a DC stage. The night I attended, peals of laughter rolled through the re-opening-night crowd. There also were some groans, not because it was awful but because it was awesome: so linguistically dexterous and outrageously sharp even points of view one might be appalled by had the appeal of being enjoyably expressed.
Even more momentously, The Originalist returns to Arena in a much changed political landscape, an alt-ered United States, an era more partisanly polarized than since perhaps the Civil War. It’s that dead serious. So how and why did The Originalist‘s debate between right and left become such feel-good fun?
There are some features within the script that help explain. For one thing, Justice Scalia and Cat really listen to each other; they don’t preach or bark at each other; whatever they say, they speak with the sincere (and not misplaced) expectation that the other will hear and understand if not agree. Modeling this grown-up comportment (which seems to have exited the national stage, pursued by a boor), Edward Gero and Jade Wheeler reprise their roles as Scalia and Cat with such emotional dimension and mental precision one could relish their company for hours.
The play is set in 2012–2013 as the Supreme Court was arguing the same-sex marriage case that would overturn DOMA, United States v. Windsor. A fascinating and informative chunk of The Originalist revisits that pivotal decision, with Scalia maintaining his strict-constructionist view that because the Constitution breathes not a word about homosexuality it shouldn’t be a federal case, and with Cat arguing, basically, get real.
But soon into the show I sensed a significant extra-textual phenomenon going on, something above and beyond the script’s historical and legal content, something that seemed a sea-change transformation in how the play was landing. Our new and unimproved political landscape had made Gero’s and Wheeler’s phenomenal performance feel like group therapy for the body politic. It was as if our collective belly laughter about the fissures that divide us was making us believe again in public civility and political cooperation, or what Cat calls “meeting in the middle.” These days that hope seems dashed in real life. But for The Originalist’s (nearly) two hours’ traffic on the Kreeger stage, that healing hope felt within reach.
Brett Mack is back as Brad, also a recent Harvard Law grad and a competitor for Scalia’s clerkship. A right-wing foil to Cat, he comes off a jerk of all tirades, which functions to make Scalia’s smarter, less ideological conservatism all the more pointed—and Scalia’s yielding to Cat’s influence all the more poignant.
The work of Director Molly Smith’s superb design team is again in view, now in more spacious quarters: Set Designer Misha Kachman, Costume Designer Joseph P. Salasovich, Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills and Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis. (See commentary on the original Kogod production by my DCMetroTheaterArts colleagues Robert Michael Oliver and David Siegel.)
More than any other stage work in recent memory, The Originalist’s relevance and resonance have not so much been overtaken by events as amplified by them. Would that now did not make this play so necessary and rewarding to see.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission.
The Originalist plays through August 6, 2017, at the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.