In the case of Scalia v. Gero, Antonin Scalia stared down Edward Gero as the actor visited the Supreme Court to observe the justice at work.
“We locked eyes for about 15 seconds,” says Gero, currently playing Scalia in John Strand’s new drama “The Originalist” at Arena Stage. “I thought, ‘I can’t blink. I just have to hold this and hope I don’t melt.’ ”
The two men look enough alike that Gero says he was once mistaken for Scalia. Shared traits: both are Italian American. Roman Catholic. Born in New Jersey.
“Maybe we share DNA,” Gero jokes. “You go back far enough, we probably do.”
Audiences will make their own comparisons — except for those who flat-out can’t abide Scalia. Strand already knows of people who won’t see the play because they so fervently disagree with Scalia’s staunchly conservative public stances.
“I’m looking forward to getting hate mail on both sides,” Gero deadpans. He calls the mere prospect of a Scalia play “a Rorschach test” because whenever people react to the justice’s name, “I immediately know what side of the political spectrum they’re on. Immediately.”
That, says Strand, is at least part of what he’s up to in this premiere that’s been in development at Arena for more than a year. “The failure of a civil discourse and the lack of a middle is an issue I’m concerned about,” Strand says. “Scalia allows us to explore it in a way I hope is entertaining.”
“The Originalist” isn’t even the only Scalia-themed entertainment on tap in the region. Composer Derrick Wang’s hour-long opera “Scalia/Ginsburg” musicalizes verbatim arguments between court adversaries Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; it premieres this summer at the Castleton Festival. Ginsburg shared her star power with Arena last fall, briefly taking the stage for a chapter of the Civil War project “Our War.”
“You’re rock stars,” NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg said to Ginsburg and Scalia during an interview at Lisner Auditorium last month.
Strand says his play tries to capitalize on Scalia’s dual reputation as an intellectual scourge and a bit of a conservative showman. It’s fiction, a made-up story grounded in history ranging from Scalia’s resounding 98-0 confirmation as the nation’s first Italian American Supreme Court justice in 1986 to his dissent in the 2013 United States v. Windsor case (which invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act). The cast includes two invented law clerks on opposite sides of the political divide, yet the script also uses some verbatim passages from Scalia’s writings and public statements.
“It gives us a chance to hear the viewpoints of Scalia, and also to have them challenged,” Strand says. “There’s something to wrestle with here. There’s something to argue about.”
“With respect,” adds Gero, sitting with Strand in a small conference room at Arena. “And that’s the thing that comes out of the experience of being in the courtroom. You can have any point of view you want. But it’s about the argument, and not about the person submitting the argument.”
This isn’t entirely new terrain for Strand, whose works include a Reagan-era update of Molèire’s “The Misanthrope” for Arena and the shenanigan-filled “Three Nights in Tehran” in 1996 at Signature Theatre. “Three Nights” rendered Oliver North’s arms-for-hostages gambit as sheer farce, which is not where Strand is heading here. “I never set out to mock Scalia or do a hatchet job on him,” Strand says.
Gero, long known for classical roles at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and contemporary parts at the Studio Theatre, helped Arena to a box-office record three seasons ago playing painter Mark Rothko in “Red.” Before that, Washington audiences had two chances to see Gero as an antic Richard Nixon in “Nixon’s Nixon,” a comic fantasy of the disgraced president’s final hours in office. In 1999 and in 2008 at the Round House Theatre, Conrad Feininger played Nixon’s confessor, Henry Kissinger, as Nixon and Kissinger savagely impersonated other world leaders including JFK, Leonid Brezhnev, Golda Meir and Mao Zedong.
For “The Originalist,” chief resources include Joan Biskupic’s “American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Antonin Scalia,” along with the Federalist Papers. At the court, Gero took a close reading of what he calls Scalia’s “work in the chair” — the behavior, the business.
“He’s very expressive with his hands,” Gero says. “I look for signatures. There are patterns.”
“He’s got you down,” Totenberg told Scalia at Lisner. (She had been to a reading at Arena.)
Gero also enjoyed a lunch with the justice, and the left’s bête noire turns out to be “Charming, funny, witty, interested. . . . After spending two hours with him, I felt like I was hanging out with Uncle Nino.” The actor and the jurist even share an “originalist” inclination that makes Scalia a target for critics charging he’s socially out of step and brutally doctrinaire. “I’m a textualist,” Gero says of his Shakespearean approach. “I’ve been teaching that for 30 years. What does it say? Let’s go back to the text.”
Strand hasn’t met his subject and emphasizes that the play has not been seen or vetted by Scalia. (Scalia declined to comment for this article.) Strand has had legal advice about the do’s and don’ts regarding public figures, an issue that flared at Theater J a few seasons ago when Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel objected to being featured as a character in Deb Margolin’s “Imagining Madoff.” Strand’s interviews and in-house readings at Arena have included lawyers, journalists, a federal judge, a former prosecutor, and former clerks (some of whom worked for Scalia and wish to remain anonymous).
“We had a lot of input,” Strand says. “We want to be accurate. And we want to be fair.”
When Totenberg asked Scalia about the play at the Lisner event, Scalia answered with Jersey punch. “What can they do to me?” he said. “That’s my motto: What can they do to me?”
“You couldn’t get to that position with a thin skin,” Gero says. “But there is a sense of, Argue with me. Have a point of view. That’s his job. And there’s a certain glee about it.”
Theater and law have long intersected in some of the Shakespeare Theatre’s extracurricular programs, which is how Gero has already rubbed shoulders with people he refers to as “Sandra Day, Ruth Bader, Souter, and the chief, Rehnquist.” The day he went to the Supreme Court to observe Scalia at work, he later ran into Justice Stephen Breyer at a party. (Breyer had watched Gero as Scrooge in Ford’s Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” only two days before.)
“The access is extraordinary,” says Gero, whose first fan letter as a Washington actor came decades ago, signed by New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “Nowhere else can you have the opportunity to talk to these people directly from a theatrical point of view. We’re being the canaries in the mine, saying, ‘Here’s what we think is going on.’ ”
Will Scalia show up to see what the artists think is going on?
“He’s been invited,” Gero says. “We’ll have to await his decision.”
“The Originalist,” by John Strand. Through April 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $55-$119, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.