In John Strand’s snappy, timely, contrived drama “The Originalist,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse, it’s 2012, and a liberal law-school graduate named Cat has applied for a clerkship with conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
When Scalia asks Cat why she wants to work for him, she replies, “You are probably the most polarizing figure in American civic life”
Scalia bristles. “‘Probably’? I hold the title, thank you. Strike the probably.”
Cue the drums: The battle has been joined. From their very first volleys, Cat and Scalia face off like mythic foes. In his corner we have age, experience and arrogance; in hers, idealism, determination and heart. We know, even before Cat does, that she’s going to get the clerkship; we also know that she’ll change Scalia and he’ll change her.
The play isn’t the slightest bit coy about its fairy tale structure: It’s “Beauty and the Beast” reconfigured as a debate on American jurisprudence. As Scalia explains, half of America sees him as a monster: “Aggressive. Combative. Law and order conservative.” The other half is enchanted with him as a hero — for the same reasons. Cat is the feisty heroine who sets out, armed with legal research instead of love, to break the spell.
The mesmerizing Edward Gero, who originated the role of Scalia in “The Originalist” at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in 2015, gives us a twinkly eyed and endearing antagonist. Like the real-life Scalia as described by friends and associates, Gero’s Scalia comes across as charming, eloquent, self-aware and witty. Yes, Scalia’s belief that the U.S. Constitution should be applied as the framers intended (“originalism”) leads him inexorably to positions that seem, at least to liberals, hard and uncaring. No, he doesn’t think the Supreme Court should legislate affirmative action, gay marriage or abortion rights. Yes, his dissents are scathing. But as Cat discovers, his ideological rigor doesn’t mean he has no heart.
Strand condenses the philosophical questions that underlie the stand-off into taut, punchy, often humorous repartee, smartly directed by Arena Stage artistic drector Molly Smith, who helped to develop “The Originalist.” Since Scalia’s death in 2016, the script has grown more relevant: Liberals and conservatives have retreated even further from the political middle ground that Cat wistfully envisions. In the atmosphere of hysterically partisan politics, it feels wholesome and encouraging to hear the two positions summed up clearly and persuasively, with a minimum of name-calling.
But in trimming complex issues to fit a sentimental story line, Strand has inevitably sacrificed some of their nuances; meanwhile, as a drama, “The Originalist” often tests our credulity.
Scalia was known to hire liberal clerks if only because, as he says in the play, “it reminds me of how right I am.” But surely he wasn’t as patient with all of them as he is with Cat (the appealing Jade Wheeler). She can ask him no question, however nosy or impertinent, that he won’t answer honestly and in detail. He takes her on field trips to the shooting range. Late in the action, he invites one of her former law school classmates, an evil sycophant named Brad (Brett Mack), to work with them — apparently to serve as a common enemy and tighten their bond. It’s touching that Scalia has such a soft spot for Cat, but it’s also a little mysterious because she isn’t a person so much as a mouthpiece for liberal attitudes (with a side business in providing exposition).
Like all fairy tales, “The Originalist” is better at revealing psychological desires than representing reality. It would be delightful if a bright young person could singlehandedly heal our broken polity. But if Scalia’s close friend and colleague, the staunch liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, never could sway him from his convictions, it seems far-fetched that Cat could. Right now we probably need more than a fantasy. But a fantasy is a start.
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Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions)
Information: (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
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