Friday, May 22, 2009

A More Perfect Union


By Vern Thiessen. Directed by Ron Russell. East 13th Street Theater. (CLOSED)

Aside from Aaron Riccio (writing for Show Business), critics find Vern Thiessen's opposites attract love story between two Supreme Court law clerks to be unrealistic and predictable. Critics write that the two actors, Melissa Friedman and Godfrey L. Simmons Jr., do an admirable job with the material, but have no chemistry and therefore the political dialogue works better than the romantic. The best reviews go to Troy Hourie for his library set.

Show Business A
(Aaron Riccio) The play is not all laughs, but the give-and-take between Simmons and Friedman — particularly when they role-play their Supreme Court bosses — holds us rapt even as they debate the ethical minutiae of fictional Supreme Court “certs” (case submissions). The theatrical realities — every lean over a desk, crinkle of a wrapper, and slam of a book — keep things so physical that we are able to absorb the more thought-provoking ideas. Similarly, the moral issues Thiessen explores are so engaging that we are willing to lose ourselves in Russell’s stagecraft. Bring on the musical transitions between scenes (or “articles”): swing holds plenty of sexual tension; indie rock is full of bipolar jumps in tempo.

Backstage C+
(Andy Propst) That Maddie, from a working-class background in Cleveland, and James, an African American from the upper echelons of Atlanta society, fall in love while working as clerks for the Supreme Court is to be expected. What surprises—and it's the most satisfying aspect of the play—are the arguments they have about the cases that might be heard by the court. Unfortunately, the romantic bets they make about their influence over the justices are cloying, and because Thiessen limits their romance to legal sparring, the difficulties that crop up in their unusually intense relationship strain credibility. Thankfully, Friedman and Simmons turn in first-rate performances, working on Troy Hourie's multilevel set that, combined with Tyler Micoleau's lighting, handsomely evokes the austerity of Federal architecture.

Lighting & Sound America C-
(David Barbour) Thiessen has plenty of ideas on his mind, and he has a nice way of putting them into dialogue. The political debates between Maddie and James have a crispness and clarity that you wish could be found on Meet the Press or CNN's Reliable Sources. Furthermore under Ron Russell's direction, Melissa Friedman and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. navigate the tricky script with technique to spare. They're especially adept at handling their overlapping dialogue and on-a-dime mood swings. I rather liked the Cheshire Cat-smile that curls around Friedman's lips when Maddie thinks she's scoring a point. Simmons is a sneaky charmer -- the kind who, before you know it, wins you over in spite of yourself -- but he also argues his points -- about the Court's hidebound attitudes toward race and gender -- with real force as well... Nevertheless, there's that nagging question of credibility, which isn't helped by sequences of playacting, in which either James or Maddie offers a mock oration, with the other impersonating a judge. Russell's direction suffers from a number of cutesy touches, especially when he's filling the transitions between scenes with unnecessary comic business.

CurtainUp D+
(Elyse Sommer) Melissa Friedman, whose wonderful performance in Epic's Hannah and Martin remains fresh in my mind, does what she can with this stereotypical character, as does Godfrey L. Simmons Jr with his. But neither they, director Ron Russell or the handsome staging can save this pat romantic situation from coming off as a soap opera made more flavorful by its Supreme court background. The parallel to the case that Maddy is trying to get past the Rule of Four (the vote of four Justices needed to get a case heard) is more obvious than genuinely organic. Thiessen doesn't stint on legal banter with references to Supreme Court practices that have been the subject of much criticism but no action. But he seems torn between admiration for a venerated institution and wanting to do a bit of muckraking about the questionable practices the law clerk system has bred: A too heavy reliance on these smart young lawyers to help make decisions and serve as legal ghost writers, and conversely, law clerks happy to take this sure road to plushy careers with higher earnings than those of the justices they worked for.

Variety D+
(Marilyn Stasio) Troy Hourie's extremely handsome set of the private library of the Supreme Court confers unearned gravitas on this romantic political fantasy. Under the lush lighting of Tyler Micoleau, vintage chandeliers, solid wood desks, thick red carpeting and an imaginative floor-to-ceiling wall treatment consisting of gigantic law books are served up on a raised stage that says: We are smart, we are serious, we are above it all. Maddie (Melissa Friedman), a Jewish workaholic who clerks for a conservative justice she calls "the Wise One," considers this study nook her private domain. She's both annoyed and affronted when her space is invaded by James (Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.), a full-of-himself charmer who clerks for a liberal justice he calls "the Enlightened One." This "meet cute" scene doesn't go well, however, as Thiessen ("Einstein's Gift") proves awkward at the light, sexy, serio-comic dialogue that accompanies the mating rituals of the young and horny. Instead of being clever and seductive, their arch banter is merely irritating.

Time Out New York D+
(Diane Snyder) Friedman and Simmons generate a winning rapport—Simmons is especially charismatic as he fluctuates between his character’s playful and serious sides—but despite their efforts and those of director Ron Russell, Thiessen’s vital themes of unity and truth-telling hit louder than a pounded gavel. Epic Theatre Ensemble’s mission is to tackle issue-oriented plays, but this one becomes too much of a trial.

The New York Times D-
(Anita Gates) It’s nice to know that a Canadian playwright has a deep admiration for the United States Supreme Court, but turning that feeling into fictional entertainment can’t be easy. Because a love for justice isn’t that inherently dramatic. Or comic. Or romantic. Vern Thiessen tries to enliven the subject with his well-meaning one-act “A More Perfect Union,” presented by the Epic Theater Ensemble at the East 13th Street Theater. But after he throws a batch of plot ideas into a stew pot, he forgets to turn on the gas, and the results taste like a thin After-School Special.

The Village Voice F+
(James Hannaham) Melissa Friedman's unconvincingly conservative Maddie and Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.'s mush-mouthed James are forced to preen through some pretty television-y bits as director Ron Russell amps the coy exchanges and smug comebacks. Truly, you'd rather hang out with real lawyers. Nothing makes this pair of bar-crossed lovers' 11th-hour conversion to ethical behavior seem heartfelt, and worse, you're left with a faint aftertaste of racism and misogyny, feeling that the skeleton of the story is this: James ravages, impregnates, and thereby domesticates Maddie. If there were a second act—and, thankfully, there isn't—it would doubtless take place in family court.

TheaterMania F
(Adam R. Perlman) Every few years, our interest in the Supreme Court is piqued. Usually, as is currently the case, the cause for curiosity is a vacancy. One would think this situation might make Vern Theissen's A More Perfect Union, now being presented by the Epic Theater Company at the East 13th Street Theater, particularly timely. Instead, its less-than-credible romance, poor grasp of reality, and glib dialogue make this two-hander a resolutely old-fashioned affair.

musicOMH F
(Scott Mitchell) The whole set up feels forced and artificial. The play then lurches into lecture mode and the characters are reduced to little more than mouthpieces. The audience is hit with wave after wave of dialogue about race, economic privilege and abortion. The simplicity of their arguments are particularly infuriating. No two intelligent people would deliver the banalities that these two people do. It's impossible to believe in them as Supreme Court clerks. The whole play has a dumbed down quality as if Thiessen assumes all Americans exist on a steady diet of Fox News, Jerry Springer and Project Runway and he has to talk down to them accordingly.

New York Post F
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) More painfully heavy-handed parallels spring up from the judicial issues. In a twist that nobody but nobody could have seen coming, the pair's life eventually echoes a couple of the primo cases they've been arguing about. All this drama completely lacks drama -- which is weird, considering that a lawyer making an impassioned case is inherently theatrical. Thiessen tries to inject levity in the legal-eagles plot by having Maddie and James quickly finish each other's sentences in an attempt to emulate the volleys of screwball comedy. Alas, Garson Kanin, who scripted the classic feuding-lawyers comedy "Adam's Rib," he's not.

Show Business A 13; Backstage C+ 8; Lighting & Sound America C- 6; CurtainUp D+ 5; Variety D+ 5; TONY D+ 5; The New York Times D- 3; The Village Voice F+ 2; TheaterMania F 1; musicOMH F 1; New York Post F 1; TOTAL: 50/11 = 4.55 (D+)

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