Magazine | August 27, 2018, Issue

Playing with Politics

Edward Gero and Tracy Ifeachor in The Originalist (Joan Marcus)

In New York this summer, there were two theatrical productions of a political nature (at least two). Neither one was especially good for a conservative’s blood pressure. Both are certainly worth examining. I will spend more time on the first than on the second.

At the first, The Originalist, they handed you a copy of the Constitution as you entered the theater. This does not happen at every show (even at Hamilton, so far as I know). The Originalist is a play about Antonin Scalia, the conservative lawyer, professor, and judge who served on the Supreme Court from 1986 until his death in 2016.

The play was first staged in 2015. According to news reports, Scalia himself never saw it (by his own choice). The play has been staged around the country since its premiere.

There has also been an opera about Scalia — or rather, about Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg both. They were good friends and fellow opera lovers. The opera about them is Scalia/Ginsburg, by Derrick Wang (who serves as both composer and librettist, à la Wagner).

The Originalist is by John Strand, a playwright with an obvious taste for politics: Another work of his is Three Nights in Tehran, about the Iran-Contra affair. The Originalist is set late in Scalia’s career, specifically the 2012–13 Supreme Court term.

It opens with a bit of opera — the Brindisi from Verdi’s Traviata. Scalia enters, pronouncing it “exquisite.” This is an odd word to apply to a rollicking drinking song, but be that as it may. Scalia goes on to compare an operatic score to the Constitution and the law: You must respect it, no matter the era. So far so good.

In this initial scene, Scalia is speaking to an audience of law students and related others, when he is interrupted — practically heckled — by a member of that audience. She asks him challenging questions. Scalia responds tetchily, telling her to shut up and wait her turn, basically. He even appeals to the professor who is responsible for the evening, whinily.

I don’t think Scalia would have handled the situation this way.

Eventually, he engages with the young woman — his heckler — but not as effectively as he might. For example, the woman brings up abortion, talking of “a woman’s right to do what she wants with her own body.” I don’t think the real Scalia would have let this pass, as the play’s Scalia does.

That was my problem throughout the play: I kept wanting to answer for Scalia, or, even better, have him answer for himself.

The young woman, who challenges him, is Cat, a recent graduate of Harvard Law. She is black, gay, and left-wing. She applies to be Scalia’s clerk — and he accepts her, in part to have a sparring partner. “The term we use here is ‘counter-clerk,’” he says. “Every once in a while, I like to have a liberal around.”

And so the term begins. He will have an effect on her, and she will have an effect on him. It is an excellent idea for a play. And yet Scalia regularly says things that are — hard to imagine out of his mouth.

“Liberals lack ruthlessness when the stakes are high. It is one of the greater flaws in their character.” Really? What an odd thing for a conservative to say. Usually, they (we) complain that liberals are all too ruthless.

At one point, Cat says to Scalia, “What if your own children were gay?” He answers, “Never happen.” “Why not?” she says. He answers, “Because they’re my children.” Cat is stunned — as she should be. How can Scalia be so obtuse? The real one was anything but.

(You may remember that Phyllis Schlafly, the late social-conservative leader, had an openly gay son.)

The worst part of the play is Brad — another recent Harvard Law grad, whom Scalia has called in to assist Cat with research. He was president of the Republican Club, and he is a perfect ass: scheming, unprincipled, money-grubbing, and nasty. He is not so much a person as a cartoon — a cartoon villain. The contrast with the good and admirable Cat is a mean trick of the play, in my view.

In a shouting match, Cat calls Brad a “neocon,” obviously having no idea what the term means — which is okay, because almost no one else does either.

Cat wants to know what makes Justice Scalia tick, what makes him the right-wing monster he is (according to her law-school friends, among others). Does he have father issues? Well, maybe. But she and the play zero in on something else: In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated John Roberts to be chief justice instead of elevating Scalia, as he might have done.

Okay (sort of). But if this turned Scalia dark, what was he before 2005, i.e., for almost the whole of his career? Even more problematic is this: The play implies that Scalia thought Bush owed him the position of chief justice. Why might that be? Scalia’s vote in Bush v. Gore — quid pro quo, you know.

In a 2015 interview, the playwright, John Strand, was asked about this scene. “Scalia needs to appear vulnerable at some moment,” he said. He needs “to have suffered a disappointment,” in order to “earn the audience’s empathy.” Yet this scene, to me, makes Scalia look like a petty jerk.

When another playwright, Shake­speare, wrote Richard III, his subject had been dead for more than 100 years. Did Shakespeare use license? No doubt — but Scalia is so recent. He was here about two seconds ago. We know him. And that is why I sat so uncomfortable in my seat.

Till now, I have made no comment on the performance I saw in New York, opting to make other points: It was superb, this performance — directed by Molly Smith and acted by Edward Gero (Scalia) and Tracy Ifeachor (Cat). That is a whole other review. Back to the present one . . .

People involved in this play think it is a triumph of evenhandedness. They have said as much, repeatedly. I disagree — while also thinking that Scalia and his point of view could have come out a lot worse.

And now, a musical — a new one called “’68,” which is about the famous, or infamous, Democratic convention in Chicago. It has been 50 years since that event. The arts world, like other worlds, loves an anniversary. (This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Big Mac.) Regardless, the Chicago convention makes a juicy subject for the theater, including the musical theater.

Before the action begins, the audience sees newspaper headlines — about the assassination of Martin Luther King; the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy; the war in Vietnam; rioting and looting in American cities . . . This supplies the atmosphere.

The music is by Paul Leschen, and the book and lyrics are by Jamie Leo. Our program for the evening quoted Leo as follows: “I stayed very close to my heart, to social activism as I understand it.” Politically, ’68 takes a progressive point of view, a Howard Zinn point of view.

From ’68 (Michael Kushner)

RFK, two and a half months dead, is something of a holy figure. “I don’t know if Kennedy’s idealism ever stood a chance,” says a character. The convention’s nominee, Hubert Humphrey, is all too establishment, as the protesters see it. (The protesters are the good guys, by and large.) Humphrey is mocked in a song called “Minnesota Nice” — and so are his supporters.

Elsewhere in the show, a future president comes in for a mention: “Ronald Reagan supports Hubert!” Really? That would have been news to Reagan, and everyone else, in 1968. Somebody remarks that no one will remember Reagan 20 years from now — i.e., in 1988 or so — because he is just a B-movie actor. This gets a laugh. But, in ’68, Reagan was governor of California, and already a presidential contender.

Another governor, George Romney of Michigan, is misidentified as a former president of General Motors. Actually, he was a former president of AMC (American Motors Corporation). Romney is also mocked as a golfer — and it’s true, he played golf.

’68 is loud and raucous, like the event it memorializes and celebrates. There is a steady stream of protest and grievance. I thought of a phrase from William F. Buckley Jr., years ago: “the street theater of the Left.” There are a couple of storylines, including one about the missing daughter of a cop. I could not quite follow it. At the end, the show seems to understand itself as deep or heavy (as we used to say in the ’70s). I’m not sure about that depth, or heaviness.

Well, how about the music (no small thing in a musical)? “Unforgettable,” said the show’s PR. I suppose this is in the ear of the beholder. “Chickens” is a weird song, sung by a young Asian woman. I found it oddly effective. “All the chickens in the henhouse are so soft, are so soft. . . . All the chickens in the henhouse are so good, are so good. . . . All the chickens in the henhouse don’t rise up, don’t rise up.” Apparently, the song relates to the My Lai Massacre.

Like The Originalist, ’68 was very well executed, very well performed. Joey Murray did the directing, and the main character was taken by Mary Callanan, who can sing in tune. This may sound like faint praise but is far from it: The gift of pitch is uncommon.

As you have discerned, ’68 was not for me. It was not for me in the same way that Abbie Hoffman, rock ’n’ roll (much of it), Howard Zinn, and drugs are not for me. But I credit the show with sincerity — with an earnestness and even an idealism. Being in the theater was a bit like being in a political church. The show strives, in part, for a message of mutual understanding. That is something that most of us would be at pains to argue with.

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