Audience walkouts during a performance are an occupational hazard for stage actors. But the one that occurred some days ago in the opening moments of “The Originalist” struck Edward Gero as both especially jarring — and satisfying.
Gero portrays Antonin Scalia, the heat-seeking conservative on the U.S. Supreme Court, in John Strand’s newly minted bio-drama in Arena Stage’s smallest space, the 200-seat Cradle. He was barely five minutes into the piece, delivering the monologue that starts the three-character play, when, he reports, a man rose to his feet, huffing as he stalked out, “That’s about as much of Scalia as I can take!”
As it happens, the outburst couldn’t have been better timed if the playwright had scripted it. The line for Scalia at that juncture was about his habit of offending the nation’s “keepers of the liberal flame.” As the agitated patron left, Gero exclaimed, on cue: “Let me tell you something. They’re easy to shock!”
This particular incident didn’t merely highlight a common pitfall of live performance, however. It was also evidence of the unusual effect “The Originalist” is having on audiences, forced to reconcile their own feelings about the lightning-rod figure Strand and Gero robustly present to us. Because it’s a sure bet that the gentleman who declared himself unable to take any more wasn’t the only spectator struggling with the dramatist’s portrait. Here in the Cradle — as playgoers who stick around long enough will see — is a view of Scalia as a man of charm and humor, whose take on the Constitution as ironclad and unreceptive to changes in American culture belies a human being capable of warmth and compassion. Not a picture everyone wants to believe in, or may think merits such prominent display. As Scalia notes in the play: “A monster. That’s how half the country sees me.”
Still, Arena’s championing of the play is a healthy development for an art form all too consumed with preaching to the ideological choir. In giving us Scalia as anything but a monster, “The Originalist” is adding a fresh page to a formula-driven genre that’s highly popular these days, one that turns leading lights of recent history — most of them political progressives or moderate Democrats — into the stars of their own shows. Lyndon B. Johnson (“All the Way”), the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (“The Mountaintop”), Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (“Thurgood”) and Texas Gov. Ann Richards (“Ann”) are among the boldface names from politics and jurisprudence of the recent past whose lives and careers have received high-profile stage treatments. Playwright Robert Schenkkan, incidentally, won a Tony Award last year for “All the Way,” and Bryan Cranston was likewise acknowledged for his bravura turn in it as the nation’s 37th president.
Theater has been churning the biographies of political leaders into drama for decades; Robert Sherwood won the Pulitzer Prize more than 75 years ago for his play “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”; in the late 1950s, “Sunrise at Campobello,” Dore Schary’s play about Franklin Roosevelt’s struggle with polio, ran for 556 performances on Broadway. And “Frost/Nixon” was a 2006 play about TV host David Frost’s celebrated interviews of former president Richard Nixon. Like “The Originalist,” these works seek to peel away the varnish of their subjects’ credentials and reveal the layers of vulnerability and personal travail that remind us that they are, after all, not much different from you and me.
What distinguishes “The Originalist,” however, is its effort to do battle with preconceptions about a widely known figure still walking among us — and not in ways that give much solace to his detractors. In somewhat like-minded fashion, Peter Morgan’s “The Audience,” a current Broadway hit, crowns another living leader — Britain’s monarch, Elizabeth II — in a halo of positivity. This sentimental survey of the Queen’s relationships with nearly a dozen prime ministers deals only in the most glancing way with politics, or questions about the relevance of a monarchy in a modern democracy. And in the glow of Helen Mirren’s giant, radiant central performance, raising issues with the play’s content seems almost churlish.
If “The Audience” reassures ticket buyers with the portrait of a vigilant, conscientious regent, all but above reproach, the balanced portraiture of “The Originalist” is more discomfiting. I confess I was more curious than thrilled at spending an hour and 45 minutes in the company of a jurist who struck me as a mean-spirited ideologue, but I also was intrigued by whether Gero, an actor I admire, might convince me otherwise. It occurred to me, too, how rarely the theater attempts to bridge the ideological divide: People who write, perform in and produce plays tend to occupy the left of the political spectrum, and audiences for a lot of this work are much the same.
This generalization rarely gets the kind of vetting it has received at Arena. During another recent performance of the play, Gero says, the curtain-call applause for him and fellow cast members Kerry Warren and Harlan Work was so wan that Gero felt compelled to comment on it, something he had never done.
“We took our bows, and then I stepped forward and said, ‘Oh, you’re all liberals!’ ” Gero recalls.
The reaction? “They roared, and leapt to their feet.”
“The Originalist” unfolds as an elucidation of Scalia’s values and opinions in a series of encounters with a fictional law clerk named Cat, played by Warren, who is depicted as one of those die-hard liberals the justice professes to loathe. This gives Scalia and Cat a platform for their opposing viewpoints, most notably concerning the content of Scalia’s dissenting opinion in a 2013 ruling striking down a pivotal part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The decision was a victory for those seeking full federal rights for legally married same-sex couples, an idea to which Scalia has been vociferously hostile.
Strand portrays Scalia as a voice of integrity, yet he’s a judge so unskilled in the art of compromise that the prize he seeks — the chief justice’s chair — escapes his grasp. Under Molly Smith’s direction, his falling short helps to demystify him. You’re made to feel for a proud man of humble beginnings being denied his highest aspiration. Even so, “The Originalist” suffers from a few weaknesses, most glaringly in the overly schematic rendering of Cat. She comes across as an expedient device, a convenient way to give Scalia a sparring partner. (An abiding respect evolves between the justice and his African American lesbian clerk, a bond cemented on, of all places, a shooting range.)
Beyond that, there is the thornier issue of how much Strand has to stretch reality to paint Scalia as open to serious challenges of his views. In a 2010 article for the New York Times about polarization on the Supreme Court, reporter Adam Liptak found that from the time that John Roberts became chief justice in 2005 until then, Scalia “has not hired any clerks who had worked for a judge appointed by a Democratic president.” (The justices are each allotted a staff of four clerks of their choosing.)
In light of “The Originalist’s” view of Scalia as a man with the generosity of vision to see past politics, one would be disappointed to learn that a clerk with Cat’s politics could not really have secured a job in Scalia’s chambers. In an interview, however, Strand said he had talked with several of Scalia’s former clerks, who told him the justice was inordinately fond of vigorous debate with all of them.
“It’s not my concern to somehow change the personality of Scalia for people. I’m not interested in his image,” Strand says. “I’m using him as a very intriguing character to make important points in the play. If we’ve come to the place in our civic discourse where the other person is a monster and we dismiss that person, we’ve done nothing to instruct ourselves. We’re really stuck in our discourse, and it disturbs me.”
Instructive for Strand, too, has been how that paralysis even manifests itself in judgments about the future of his play. One producer who came to see it, the playwright says, was effusive about the work but allowed as he didn’t have the stomach to participate in enlightening an audience about a jurist he despised.
And so it goes. Oh, by the way, “The Originalist” has been extended twice at Arena — it now runs through May 31 — and is challenging a prior hit, “Red Hot Patriot,” about the liberal firebrand journalist Molly Ivins, as the best-attended production ever in the Cradle. Perhaps a useful application of the Fairness Doctrine could be taking hold in D.C., 200 playgoers at a time.