The impulse to tear down and start over, as ancient as we are, occasionally makes a bigger noise of itself than usual. World War I, that was a loud one. Sacco and Vanzetti, loud. The Sex Pistols, really loud. The noise was so loud in 2016 it handed the earth’s most important job to a reality TV host who’d distilled the impulse into a catchphrase, and just might get so loud in 2020 that “You’re Fired!” comes back to haunt him.
All of which is to say, Heidi Schreck has crazy perfect timing. A playwright and performer whose indelible, subversive and audaciously funny What The Constitution Means To Me opens tonight on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre, Schreck has carried a particular true-life story within her for 30-odd years, and she springs it on us when we need it most.
Blending autobiography with U.S. history, social studies, civics and at least one or two other high school classes you only wish were this much fun, Schreck arrives on a stage designed by Rachel Hauck to resemble all the wood-paneled meeting rooms of all the American Legion halls Schreck visited in her teens to participate in the debate and speech competitions that would eventually fund her entire college education and give this play its title. Dozens of photos of presumably dead Legionnaires, all men, line the walls, watching.
Directed by Oliver Butler, Constitution opens with Schreck, in jeans, white shirt and bright yellow blazer bounding onto the set. After describing her long-ago debate career (she’d later be a successful TV writer with Nurse Jackie and Billions, among others), Schreck says she started thinking again about the Constitution a few years ago “for various reasons” – the sly delivery gets a laugh – and wonders what, exactly, so captured the devotion of a teenage girl. “Because I did, I loved it,” she says, her voice as loud and enthusiastic as that high schooler trying to impress her judges. “I was a zealot!”
For much of the rest of its 90 minutes, Schreck, a monologist (with a little help from friends, but more of that later) in a league with John Leguizamo and Spalding Grey, will shift back and forth from the girl she was to the woman she is, delivering the speech that so many Legionnaires loved with the interruptions that the wiser and world-wearier adult Schreck can’t resist adding.
But before we get to those interruptions, a word on the old speech. It’s terrific, in and of itself. Of course we can’t know just how accurately the playwright is recalling her 15-year-old self, but the bits and pieces we hear are marvelous – as optimistic, weird and dark as the teenager obsessed with sex, Patrick Swayze and the Salem witch trials Shreck says she was.
Like someone too frustrated to let a joke-teller get away with leaving out a crucial part of the set-up, the adult Schreck will interject with fresh insights, updated history and her own personal reflections – at one point well into the 90 minute play, Schreck sends her younger self and the show’s initial premise packing, doffing the yellow jacket and the excitable voice, lowering her vocal register with a conspiratorial, re-introductory “hello.”
As the play proceeds, Schreck deconstructs not only the Constitution, but her younger, more naive view of a document that had to be so grudgingly forced to protect women, African Americans, Native Americans, and the LGBTQ population. She wonders whether countries with newer constitutions – based on “positive rights,” like the right to health care or education – rather than “negative rights” – the government can’t lock us up without due cause – would better serve a population more diverse than the Founding Fathers could ever have imagined.
Along with talk of the 9th and 14th Amendments, there’s personal history, parallels drawn and connections made between the civics lessons and the harrowing accounts of the depressions, suicides and sexual and domestic violence that have hounded the women in Schreck’s extended family for generations. She’ll recall a college incident in which a boy, who remains a friend to this day (well, a Facebook friend) removed her pants before the two engaged in sex that even now she’s pretty sure was consensual.
I had read Audre Lord and Gloria Steinem and bell hooks. I was taking Advanced Feminist Theory. And yet I just decided to go ahead and have sex with this guy because it seemed like the polite thing to do. I think. Or maybe… Now, I don’t know. When I think back about being in the car, I remember how dark it was outside. I remember there was nobody on the street, my dorm was way, way out on the edge of campus. I remember having this kind of sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and then this fleeting thought— so quick, I almost can’t put it into language. But if I had to say it out loud, it would sound something like “stay alive.”
By now I should have mentioned that Schreck has not been alone on stage. Her friend and fellow actor Mike Iveson has been sitting, on the sidelines, dressed as the American Legion referee who sets the rules, calls time and quietly suggests when Schreck is getting off-topic. Once the “memory” premise is disposed of, Iveson strips down to his street clothes and introduces himself, discussing the irony of representing “male energy” when for so long he questioned exactly that about himself. He recalls being gay bashed not so very long ago on a New York street.
A third person arrives near the end of the play, a young high school woman of color (the astoundingly confident Thursday Williams at the reviewed performance) who will engage in a real debate with Schreck over whether the United States should keep its Constitution or abolish it and begin again. The sides – who argues to keep the Constitution, who to abolish – are randomly chosen at each performance, and while some improvisation seems likely, various endings are scripted, with an audience member ultimately choosing the winner. I was pleased with the outcome on my night, when youth had the final word.