Los Angeles Theater Review: THE ORIGINALIST (Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Dale Reynolds on April 15, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


The late Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) was an important conservative voice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1986 until his death. He was a loud-voiced proponent of the intellectual ideal of “originalism,” meaning that interpreting the U.S. Constitution (b. 1789) lies directly with what the framers meant at that time and that no “newfangled” ideas should be incorporated from current thinking.

As loopy as that sounds to most of us, to many bright folk it’s the conservative answer to “activist” judges; the feeling being that judging should be about interpreting the law, not actively changing it. The Constitution is an enduring document and that if there were going to be major changes in the way policies were implemented that they would have to be done through the democratic process. And that you don’t want to give judges too much power to make those kinds of decisions.

Playwright John Strand explores some of the intellectual and controversial conflicts of the originalists’ understandings of Judicial Restraint, but also its emotional underpinnings. Both of which are only partially realized at this Pasadena Playhouse production. When Cat (Jade Wheeler), an intelligent African-American female law school graduate, applies to the open clerkship, which every Justice has, both she and Scalia (Edward Gero) are challenged by each other to the core.

The elder jurist is always looking to mentor bright young people and the younger clerk must find obstacles to overcome in order to advance. That they will infuriate each other is a guessable outcome; that she oversteps her bounds constantly while he bats away her arguments is a large part of the drama.

Opening with a solo “lecture” directly to the audience (cast as law school students), Scalia, using folksy humor and narrow intellectual points, charms us. Then we meet the young law-school graduate who wants to clerk for him. Cat meets him head-on as an infuriating sparring partner, and finds him to be a qualified mentor. The two argue for the next hour or so (no intermission), going back-and-forth with conservative vs. liberal issues.

Whether in an office or a shooting range, Strand’s fictional play pits the young black woman against an old white curmudgeon—and later saddles Cat with a younger version of Scalia, a humorless sycophantic clerk named Brad (Brett Mack)—simply to voice a fair-fight polemic that is more contrivance than drama, as entertaining as some of it is. It isn’t deep, but it sure beats trying to follow any of the arguments on Fox and Friends.

photos by Jim Cox Photography

The Originalist
Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Avenue in Pasadena
Tues-Friday at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on May 7, 2014
for tickets, call 626-356-7529
or visit Pasadena Playhouse

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cris Franco May 1, 2017 at 9:40 am

Dear Mr. Reynolds — thanks for your insightful analysis of a play I’m going to definitely try and see. (Your Fox & Friends comment is what sold me.) Following Scalia’s death, the affectionate outpouring of praise bestowed upon him from both right and left whet my appetite to learn more about this enigmatic and influential mind. Those close to him spoke of his “theatrical” nature — how best to communicate that but through drama. Thanks! Cris Franco


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