Monday, February 28, 2022

What the Constitution Means to Me: Amateur Night

Cassie Beck in What the Constitution Means to Me. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In my American Drama class, when we turn from the golden age of Broadway drama to more experimental work of the sixties, seventies and eighties, I like to ask my students if they think that something like Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem” For Colored Girls or Jane Wagner’s one-woman piece for Lily Tomlin, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, or Christopher Durang’s two-hander Laughing Wild, where two wildly dissimilar characters monologue in the first half and interact in a dream in the second, is really a play. The question generally arouses considerable discussion, but it’s essentially disingenuous; obviously I believe these are plays (and fine ones) or I wouldn’t include them in my syllabus. But then there’s Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, currently being presented by Boston’s Huntington Theatre at the Emerson Majestic Theatre, as part of the show’s North American tour. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Horton Foote Playwriting Award, was nominated for the Tony and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, yet it isn’t a play at all, in the sense that a play dramatizes something, i.e., adheres to some kind of dramatic structure. Most of it is a screed that details all the ways in which the U.S. Constitution disempowers women. The set-up is that the Schreck character, played originally by the playwright and currently by Cassie Beck, reconstructs the speeches she used to give as a teenager, explicating items in the Constitution in competitions sponsored by the American Legion, in order to amass tuition money for college. Now, in her forties, she riffs on them – personalizing them, drawing on the experiences of her mother, aunt and grandmother and great-grandmother, all victims of domestic abuse. Her stories are horrifying, enraging and inspiring; the way in which Schreck uses them to work up the audience is cruder and more manipulative than the cheapest melodrama. In fact, the main difference between this section (which takes up most of the running time) and cheap melodrama is that even a third-rate writer of melodramas has some skill, however rudimentary. If Schreck is a playwright, I’m a heart surgeon.

At roughly the hour-fifteen mark, Gabriel Marin, the actor playing the Legionnaire who pulls Heidi’s topics out of a jar and times her responses, suddenly drops character, introduces himself, strips down to pants and a t-shirt and tells a story about his own childhood (or perhaps the childhood of the actor who played the role in the Broadway production; I’m not sure). It focuses on the emotional support he received from his father when, a boy of no athletic gifts playing Little League, he fumbled a fly ball and lost the game for his team. Presumably it’s meant to offer a counter-example to the grandfather who terrorized two generations in Heidi’s family, the police who failed to protect them (and other, even less fortunate women and children whose sad fates we learn), and the male Supreme Court justices who upheld the lunkheaded idea that the law doesn’t require the cops to do so. But his speech is such a stretch for the material in What the Constitution Means to Me that it’s merely perplexing. So though, to be honest, I was relieved at the respite from Heidi’s tirade and from the actress’s habit of pushing every emotion like a lever in a video game (at one point I thought that if she used that tears-in-the-voice trick again I might start screaming), and though Marin is a smart, grounded actor, the section that spotlights him plays like an interpolation from someone else’s script.

The last section is a debate between a high school trans kid named Emilyn Toffler (who alternates with Jocelyn Shek) and Heidi – or perhaps Cassie, since by this time in the evening the actress has introduced herself and it’s not clear whether she’s still playing the playwright – over whether or not to retain the Constitution. Toffler picks a member of the audience to adjudicate. This part, which only takes about twenty minutes but feels much longer, isn’t infuriating, just embarrassing, like a fatuous ice breaker dreamed up by overeager orientation leader for incoming college freshmen.

Doesn’t what I’ve just described sound like a holy mess thrown together by an amateur? Worse, the show occasionally throws in allusions to the ways in which the Constitution also marginalizes people of color and other disadvantaged minorities; I assume that’s why the alternating teen debaters are a young trans man and a young Asian woman. But it isn’t really interested in them – they’re obviously included so that the work can seem to expand the circle of political relevancy. One might have imagined that some of the critics who heaped praise on this play or some of the committees who heaped awards on Schreck would have found this random, inauthentic stockpiling an offensive sop to the minorities in question. 

The only thing you can say about Oliver Butler’s direction of What the Constitution Means to Me is that it doesn’t mitigate any of the problems in the writing, which might be an impossible feat – or in Beck’s performance, which a good director might have worked to improve. Never having seen any of the other shows listed in Butler’s biography in the playbill, I can’t comment further.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.      


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