US THE U.S.
September 28, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
It was a rather extraordinary thing to pick myself up off the sofa last night, where I had been glued to the TV for nearly eight straight hours, before heading downtown to the New York Theatre Workshop on East Fourth Street to see their latest offering. Watching the duel testimonies of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh throughout the day had left me completely worn out, but a last-minute offer to attend a new play felt like a good way to clear my head. Difficult as it was to muster the energy, I dutifully showed up without even realizing what I was getting myself into. Because due to the subject matter of What the Constitution Means to Me, a new play Heidi Schreck, I was setting myself up for a corollary (and yes, a tonic) to the travesty of justice that was gripping the nation. What Schreck is doing, at this moment in time, is necessary not only to our worth as a country, but to our theatre, which at its best, shines a light on current ideas and mores upon which we can reflect and hopefully grow.
This autobiographical evening is a construct that works perfectly in both its intelligent writing and simple staging (the fine direction is by Oliver Butler). Schreck, both a playwright and television writer, as well as an accomplished actress, has a bio that is far more lengthy than the modest one printed in the program. Going on-line, I was thrilled to discover she had co-written (with another fine playwright, Annie Baker) an episode of the recent short-lived, but critically acclaimed Amazon series, I Love Dick. Of the eight that aired (all of which I saw), this fifth one, “A Short History of Weird Girls,” authored by Baker and Schreck, made me sit up and take notice in a way different from the others I watched. In fact, it was so original in its concept and execution, I had to watch it twice. With no fear of hyperbole, I intend to go back and revisit What the Constitution Means to Me as well. Such is the manner in which the play got under my skin and spoke volumes to things I care about; on how we can even hope to continue to properly function emotionally in the dysfunctional politics of America today.
Developing the play over a ten-year period, Schreck was featured in a June of 2017 piece in The New Yorker Magazine which reported on her progress with the play: “Her experience of giving Constitution speeches in high school is something she keeps thinking about without fully understanding why, she says in the show. It was a time when she was discovering a power she hadn’t fully realized she had, fueled by adrenaline and justice. ‘The contest itself was one of the most pleasurable things in my life as a teenager … I really took to it.’”
This is the crux of the What the Constitution Means to Me, which has Schreck take us back to her teenaged self; inspired by her parents (both of whom were teachers) and allowing her to exhibit her prowess as both a scholar and a debater. Competitions at American Legion Halls (the setting for the play) throughout the west and upper Midwest made it possible for her to win money that would eventually pay for her entire college education. These contests, debating the values of our constitution, enabled Schreck to fall in love with the way our country set up its laws, but also to question their validity in modern times. If this all sounds too brainy and nontheatrical, I assure you that the evening is both funny and moving. This goes to both Schreck’s merits as a playwright and as an actress. But it’s important to add that she is joined on stage by two additional characters: one a fellow actor, and one a non-pro, respectively played by Mike Iveson (who is superb) and Rosdely Ciprian (who is uncanny).
Usually when I review a play, I don’t like to write much about its plot for fear of revealing surprises. But I assure you that it is not giving away too much to tell you that the non-pro, who enters late in the play, is a young person who is going through the same rigorous training as Schreck once did at the same age. The role is double-cast, and last night had Rosdely Ciprian, a fourteen year-old champion debater, essentially playing herself (she alternates with seventeen year-old Thursday Williams). Exhibiting a confident maturity and stage presence, Ciprian might be the envy of professional actors who come to see the play.
And what of the play? Is it one, or merely an exercise confined to Schreck’s life experience, and therefore rendered unreproducible or unactable by anybody else? My answer to that is “not at all.” If I were the producing director of a regional or community theatre, I wouldn’t hesitate to put this show on, as I believe its power to both enlighten and entertain audiences is something powerful. Nor is it even in the slightest way preachy or controversial, which is something of a miracle, considering its content and our current polarizing political climate.
What the Constitution Means to Me is playing now at the New York Theatre Workshop at 79 E. 4th St. in the East Village (officially opening September 30th and scheduled to run through October 28th). There is a 20% discount code available (MAIL) for select performances, which you can either use online (nytw.org), call (212–460–5475), or bring with you directly to the box office.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.