NEW YORK — Last fall, Laurence Tribe fell headlong into love. Legalistic love, that is. It was a platonic affair of the mind at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village, where he had secured a ticket to Heidi Schreck’s whip-smart piece about the framers’ masterpiece: “What the Constitution Means to Me.”
So smitten was Tribe — a renowned constitutional scholar who has taught at Harvard Law School since 1968 — that he decided he had to meet Schreck. A journey through Google and other related searches led to an email exchange and a get-together, where the academician and the artist exchanged ideas and vowed to meet again, sometime soon.
Which is how I wound up seated next to Tribe one rainy night in late March. We were at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater on West 44th Street, where “What the Constitution Means to Me” had moved, thanks to its enthusiastic reception off-Broadway. And after the 100-minute show — an account of Schreck’s childhood absorption in the Constitution, through a reenactment of the speech contests she entered — I got a chance to sit with them both. Over oysters and martinis at a restaurant a few steps from the Helen Hayes, they shared thoughts about the document that is now the subject of the unlikeliest hit of the Broadway season.
“I was ecstatic,” the 77-year-old scholar said of the play. Tribe, the author of the seminal legal textbook “American Constitutional Law,” is such a sought-after authority on democracy-building that he helped write constitutions for the Czech Republic, South Africa and the Marshall Islands.
Schreck sat next to him, looking gratified by the praise. “I was almost embarrassingly ecstatic,” he added. “I thought, ‘This is it: she’s bringing the Constitution to life,’ and you can sense the pulsation of the audience.”
“I do feel it in the room,” Schreck, 47, replied, reflecting on the intense responses the play is generating. “For a while now I’ve felt it. When I first performed it, I was shocked at the electric feeling in the audience. Because it was a kind of expedition into the dark for me.”
“What the Constitution Means to Me,” directed by Oliver Butler and featuring a second actor, Mike Iveson, as a contest proctor, is a vehicle by which Schreck, author of the play “Grand Concourse” and a writer on Showtime’s “Billions,” takes us to places both light and dark. It’s a funny re-creation of her participation in one of these contests, in her hometown of Wenatchee, Wash. (pop. 31,925), in which students vied for prize money by expounding on the characteristics and effects of one of the Constitution’s amendments. But the play also is an opportunity for Schreck to talk about the ways in which the Constitution has failed some of the citizens — women and people of color especially — it is purportedly meant to serve.
She accomplishes this through a sometimes wrenching account of the abuse her grandmother, and the women in her family even earlier, suffered at the hands of men. (At one point, Schreck recounts how her mother, as a teenager, had to testify about the beatings of Schreck’s grandmother by her second husband.) The dramatic linchpin is the discourse that Schreck, in the guise of her 15-year-old self, is required to give on the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment, so called because it mandates that no state can deny “any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Seasoning her monologue with pertinent case law, Schreck talks about how equal protection was merely a rumor to a young Colorado mother named Jessica Gonzales. Her three children had been killed by her ex-husband, even though a restraining order was in place and she had repeatedly called the police for help, in vain. She sued the police department, lost and took her appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she lost again.
That case is one that Schreck cites as a way of cuing her audience in to her own sense of tragic injustice, and though she and Tribe share a reverence for much of the document, they also share sadness over how courts have sometimes interpreted it. “The Constitution itself is a trail of tears,” Tribe said at the restaurant. “If you look at all the atrocities perpetrated in its name.”
On some evenings, Schreck barely seems able to keep it together onstage. I witnessed one of those moments on another evening at “What the Constitution Means to Me,” when she had to pause, explaining to the audience that her chest was feeling constricted and she needed to catch her breath.
“The thing about the piece, what makes it exciting and terrible, is that it’s not the same every night,” she said. “I don’t have the same kind of emotional control that I have doing another show. Sometimes, I have unexpected reactions. Oliver [Butler] and I agreed that one of the guiding principles of doing the piece is that, as much as possible, you try to be as truthful in the moment as you can.”
On the night we met, the performance required no urgent gathering of herself. In our section of the theater, the professor caused a bit of a stir among those who recognized him. He’s a frequent presence these days on cable news networks, where he sometimes talks about his latest book, “To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment.” (A bottom line of the book, written with Joshua Matz: The threshold is dauntingly high.) An indication of who else attends “What the Constitution Means to Me” was provided by a woman in front of us, who introduced herself as Dayna Steele, a Democrat who just ran unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives in a conservative Texas district. Somehow, seeing the play with Tribe over her shoulder seemed to add to the evening’s drama.
Over the drinks afterward, Tribe and Schreck’s conversation ranged over points of law that she wanted clarified. Tribe, ever the teacher, tried to oblige, helping her, for example, with her understanding of the Ninth Amendment, over which she waxes poetic in the play. It’s the terse amendment that says rights outlined in the Constitution “shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
A lovely, eternal puzzle is what it amounts to. “The Ninth Amendment is kind of a license,” Tribe said. “You have to figure out what it means to you.”
The same can be said of how the play itself is received each night. “It changes,” Schreck said. “And what the audience brings in changes, too.”
Who knows? Maybe the success of “What the Constitution Means to Me” will spur others to bond over the document’s interpretive mutability. The Constitution’s admirers, of course, are already multitudinous and, as Tribe noted, include the immediate past U.S. president.
Barack Obama was Tribe’s assistant, back when he was a freshman at Harvard Law, and the professor recalled how much the Constitution meant to a law student destined to be a political star. “He loved the part of the preamble that said: ‘To form a more perfect union.’ ”
What the Constitution Means to Me, written and performed by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler. $49-$229. Through July 20 at Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.