Your ATL editors kicked off the Memorial Day weekend with a trip to the East 13th Street Theater in Manhattan, where we saw A More Perfect Union, presented by the Epic Theater Ensemble. The play, by Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen, is about two members of The Elect — i.e., two Supreme Court clerks, who fall in love while clerking at the U.S. Supreme Court. Maddie, a white Jewish woman from Ohio, clerks for a fictional conservative justice called “The Wise One”; James, an African-American man from Georgia, clerks for a fictional liberal justice called “The Enlightened One.”
Like the night we spent reviewing Law Revue videos, there were highlights and low points. A big highlight was a post-play discussion featuring former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse. As you know, we are what some might call Greenhouse groupies, though she was not as excited to talk to us as we were to talk to her. We just got a little handshake, a “nice to see you,” and an introduction to her daughter.
The post-show discussion also included professors Elizabeth Emens and Susan Sturm, both of Columbia Law School. Professor Sturm mentioned being a law school classmate of SCOTUS nominee Sonia Sotomayor, whom she described as “a straightforward person, who doesn’t hide from her background or make decisions based on it.” She also defended Judge Sotomayor’s Berkeley remarks about personal experience informing a judge’s jurisprudence, noting that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg basically said as much in discussing the recent strip search case before the Court (noting that her colleagues, who seemed less sensitive to the plaintiff’s plight, “have never been a 13-year-old girl”).
Obviously, we think the legal world is an exciting place, and we are always thrilled to see the courts get dramatic treatments. But our standards for fictional treatment of the courts, and especially the Court, are high.
Check out our reviews, after the jump.
ELIE: If you enjoy theater — I mean really enjoy theater — then this play will be fine. It was professionally acted in a nice black-box and the director didn’t get in the way. The writing had that super annoying “I want to be Aaron Sorkin but I can’t quite pull it off” quality to it, but I think the actors themselves stopped trying to force it down our throats. The ending was a bit screwy, but your classic black turtleneck wearing “theater person” would have a decent enough time.
Just don’t go to the show looking to experience anything that remotely involves a real legal issue, a real law clerk issue, or an issue that real Supreme Court clerks will face during their term. Boston Legal does a better job of developing legal concepts (that is not a compliment), while the sexual tension between the two characters comes out of nowhere and makes little sense throughout. Is it inconceivable that a black liberal and white conservative would become friendly? Of course not. The problem is when that romantic entanglement has any effect whatsoever on their jobs as Court clerks.
I don’t know, I usually try to turn the logical part of my brain off when I go see a show. How else could I enjoy the new Star Trek so thoroughly? But the “This. Refuses. To make sense.” part of me was too strong to overcome.
KASHMIR: The highlight for me was a dance sequence performed by the two clerks while doing legal research. Who knew reviewing petitions for cert could be so jazzy?
The low point was the make-out session in the SCOTUS library. You’d think that getting it on in the stacks of One First Street would be hot, but the lack of chemistry between the two stars made for an uncomfortable exchange of briefs.
The playwright got some things right. The library does look like that at the High Court, according to Greenhouse (and Lat). The Clerks drink at The Monocle and used insider terminology such as the line, “We’re living the dream. We’re The Elect.” Linda Greenhouse also pointed out the following during the post-play discussion: “Quite accurate in the play is that clerks get quite an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Justices ultimately make their own decisions.”
What the playwright got wrong was a compelling narrative and legal analysis that makes sense. Cases involving the death penalty for a troubled young man and nuns firing a school employee for getting an abortion are invoked, but superficially. We think the New York Times was accurate in saying it strikes its audience at times like a “thin After-School Special.”
LAT: I concur with Mystal and Hill, JJ. I also agree with much of Anita Gates’s review in the New York Times. There is a bit too much going on here, in terms of both plot and thematic elements, and it can be hard to get invested in the characters. If you’re familiar with Supreme Court or appellate arguments, you may have to work hard to suspend your disbelief during some of the speechifying.
On the plus side, there are some nice moments. Unlike Gates, I actually liked the confetti shower of 8 ½-by-11-inch sheets of paper, which struck me as a comical comment on the paper-pushing that is the law. I agree with Kash that the short dance sequences were fun (and there could even have been more of them). And any play that is about Supreme Court clerks gets points for subject selection.
So those are our thoughts on A More Perfect Union. But don’t take them as the Gospel; check out the play for yourself. The play is short, just one act, and tickets are not expensive ($37.50, less than half the price of a Broadway show ticket).
Read more about the play at the theater’s website, or buy tickets online. It closes soon, on June 7 — so if you’d like to check it out, don’t delay!
Epic Theatre Ensemble [official website]
Opposites Share a Love for Law, and Each Other [New York Times]