What the Constitution Means to Me
Helen Hayes Theater, New York City, (212) 239-6200
Heidi Schreck’s nearly one-woman show is “not just the best play to open on Broadway so far this season, but also the most important,” said Jesse Green in The New York Times. Not that it announces itself as such. Schreck initially wants merely to carry us all back to her early high school years, when she banked college scholarship money by appearing at various American Legion halls and delivering a sunny canned speech on the subject “What the Constitution Means to Me.” She’s hilarious as her 15-year-old self—cheery, ingratiating, and prone to loopy digressions. “But watch out”: This teenager is obviously withholding some truths, leaving it to today’s Schreck, 47, to take over in the next segment and “let the ghosts out.” The personal story pointedly spotlights flaws in our nation’s founding document and “restarts an argument many of us forgot we even needed to have.”
Too often, though, Schreck’s play merely “clangs the bell of cozy progressive sentiment,” said Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal. After she puts aside her “effusively twee” teenage persona, who’s as eager to expound on Dirty Dancing as the Ninth Amendment, she has dark tales to share, about a great-grandmother who was a mail-order German bride eventually confined to a mental institution for “melancholia,” and about a family history littered with abusive men and brutalized women. This devastating account is “by far the best part of What the Constitution Means to Me,” but it doesn’t fit well with Schreck’s predictable and lightly ironic civics lesson about the Constitution. For her and much of her appreciative audience, the Constitution is overly concerned with protecting the rights of land-owning white men and too little concerned with women, children, and minorities. Eventually, she suggests we should scrap and rewrite the whole thing.
That idea does not go unchallenged, said David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter. In the play’s final and “most delightfully mutable” 20 minutes, Schreck squares off with a bright teenage debater to argue the merits of replacing versus keeping the Constitution. The two draw from a hat to choose sides, and on the night I attended, 14-year-old Rosdely Ciprian, a “sharp-as-a-tack” New York public high school student, more than held her own. Watching the spirited back-and-forth that wraps up this “exquisitely heartfelt” show made me wish that the presidential debate season that begins later this year would be “even half as intellectually vigorous, half as compassionate. We can dream, right?”
Diego Lopez Calvin/Tornasol Films, AP, Joan Marcus ■