Not in person, but in battalions of framed photographs staring down from the walls of an American Legion hall circa 1987.
Soon a 15-year-old girl named Heidi arrives, with a compulsively ingratiating smile and a buttercup yellow blazer. She is there, in essence, to debate them.
Hardly seems like a fair fight, does it? It’s not meant to be. Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater on Sunday, is nothing less than a chronicle of the legal subjugation of women by men, as experienced in the day-to-day injustices of living while female and in the foundational American document that offers paltry recourse.
But if “What the Constitution Means to Me” is nothing less than that, it is also very much more. It is a tragedy told as a comedy, a work of inspired protest, a slyly crafted piece of persuasion and a tangible contribution to the change it seeks. It is not just the best play to open on Broadway so far this season, but also the most important.
Unlike typical “important” plays, it doesn’t announce itself as such. Rachel Hauck’s diorama set, already minimal during an off-Broadway run at New York Theater Workshop last year, is a bit smaller at the Hayes. (There were 205 men off-Broadway.) The cast remains tiny. Oliver Butler’s rivetingly intelligent production includes no special effects except the kind achieved by words.
But watch out: In a play that parses the meaning of a 230-year-old legal document, words are tricky.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” even begins in deception. Addressing the audience directly, Schreck, 47, tells and sometimes enacts the impossibly sunny story of how, as a teenager, she earned the money that would put her through college by preaching about the Constitution at competitions around the country. In these competitions, sponsored by the American Legion, she and other entrants were asked to give seven-minute orations that drew a “personal connection between your own life and the document” before extemporizing on an amendment selected onstage at random.
Young Heidi’s stock speech compared the Constitution, hilariously, to a witch’s caldron. (Her chief competitor went with a patchwork quilt metaphor.) But unpacking the Ninth Amendment in her oration, and responding to the 14th in her extemporaneous challenge, Heidi often avoided making those valuable personal connections.
We feel the suppression. From the start, something violent and presumptively male has been threatening the complacent skin of the story. (A legionnaire played by Mike Iveson sits at the sidelines, occasionally explaining the rules but mostly just watching.) Schreck’s jokes, left unrefrigerated a second too long, keep curdling after the laugh. She zooms past certain details — such as growing up in an “abortion-free zone” — as if they were haunted houses.
They are. And in the next part of the play, removing her jacket and reintroducing herself as a grown woman less eager to please, she lets the ghosts out. We learn about her great-great-grandmother, a melancholic mail-order bride; the history of domestic abuse in her family; and her brush with certain rights the Supreme Court eventually located in the “penumbra” of the Ninth Amendment and in the right to privacy of the 14th.
Though neither of these concepts is explicit in the document, the teenage Schreck merrily interprets them as prime examples of the framers’ brilliant modesty. “The Constitution doesn’t tell you all the rights that you have,” she says, “because it doesn’t know.”
But seen now from the other side of the great achievements of the civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights movements — all of which are threatened by the same shadowy vagueness that nurtured them in the first place — the penumbra is not a field of freedoms but a wasteland of neglect. If you are not a white, male landowner as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, the Constitution has little to offer you.
“Our bodies had been left out of the document from the beginning,” Schreck says.
Statements like that, out of context, may make “What the Constitution Means to Me” seem merely polemical, possibly misandrist and surely grim. It’s none of those things. Though it is angrier and more pointed now than it was downtown, its wording clearer and its jokes finer tuned, it is also more accessible. Schreck, known as an actor before she was known as a playwright, gives a real and wrenching performance, not a speech. And Butler has shaped the play’s representation of maleness — largely through Schreck’s interactions with the inventive Iveson — with loving complexity.
Least of all is the play grim. Although it takes us through the classic sequence of tragedy, from hubris to recognition to horror, it doesn’t bring down the curtain there. After forcing you to consider for 80 minutes whether your civics class enthusiasm for the Constitution is still defensible, Schreck then introduces a 20-minute coda that includes a live debate on the subject. (Topic: Should we abolish the U.S. Constitution?) After a coin toss, a guest debater from a local high school takes one side and Schreck the other. An audience member judges.
At the performance I saw, Rosdely Ciprian, a preternaturally composed 14-year-old New Yorker, spoke for abolishment. (At alternate performances, the guest debater is Thursday Williams.) Ciprian’s arguments, honed during a year of the play’s development, are sophisticated and cutting, and often hilarious. But so are Schreck’s. Of course, at other performances, they might wind up arguing the opposite positions.
That they are debating at all is an antidote to grimness. It’s also an instance of theatrical activism at its purest, modeling the world the play hopes to achieve: one in which even first principles are open to vigorous, orderly debate, and in which all stakeholders, not just powerful ones, are invited to the podium.
After all, Schreck points out, it would have been impossible for two women to argue policy on a public stage when the Constitution was written. They couldn’t have voted until 1920. Even then, the barriers faced by Ciprian, who is Dominican-American, and Williams, who is Jamaican-American, might well have been insuperable.
Being underage, they can’t vote now, either; some of the unexpected joy of “What the Constitution Means to Me” comes from the hope that people so smart and passionate and ready for change will soon be part of the electorate.
Joy comes too from watching an imaginative new kind of theater emerge. It doesn’t come from nowhere, of course: In some ways, “What the Constitution Means to Me” recalls Lisa Kron’s memoir play “Well,” in which a prepared speech about urban decline is hijacked by a mother who begs to differ. In other ways, Schreck’s play seems to be part of the wave of formal experimentation being led by young black playwrights today.
Linking these works is a sense of backlash and betrayal. But in the wake of tragedy, Schreck offers something more than catharsis. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one of the things we always say we want theater to be: an act of civic engagement. It restarts an argument many of us forgot we even needed to have.
“What the Constitution Means to Me”
Through July 21 at the Helen Hayes Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, constitutionbroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Credits: By Heidi Schreck; directed by Oliver Butler; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Michael Krass; lighting by Jen Schriever; sound by Sinan Refik Zafar; production stage manager, Arabella Powell; production stage manager, Bethany Weinstein Stewert; dramaturg, Sarah Lunnie; general management, 321 Theatrical Management. Presented by Diana DiMenna, Aaron Glick, Matt Ross, Madeleine Foster Bersin, Myla Lerner/Jon Bierman, Jenna Segal/Catherine Markowitz, Jana Shea/Maley-Stolbun-Sussman, Rebecca Gold/Jose Antonio Vargas, Level Forward, Cornice Productions, Lassen Wyse Balsam and Nederlander Presentations/Kate Lear.
Cast: Heidi Schreck, Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson and Thursday Williams.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.