Review of What the Constitution Means to Me on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    April 3, 2019
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    Midway through What the Constitution Means to Me, the captivating history lesson cum family memoir that has moved to the Hayes Theater after a triumphant off-Broadway run, the show’s writer and star, Heidi Schreck, makes one of her many seemingly unscripted comments. Holding her hands to her cheeks, she confides that her face “hurts from smiling.” It is at that point that Schreck drops any last pretence of being a character in a play, rather than the intimate confidant that the audience by then knows her to be. And if her achy jaws are a sign of just how clearly Schreck loves to perform this work, it is also a metaphor. Politeness with a forced smile, she implies, has been a very unsatisfactory substitute for rage against oppression, for her as well as for the women who came before her. If this show, told mostly in monologue, is an overt tutorial on one of America’s founding documents, it is equally a master class in contemporary feminism.

    The personal was political for Schreck from the age of 15 when, as she demonstrates, she raised money for college by participating in debates about the Constitution that were staged in American Legion halls around the country. She and her “fiercest competitor,” a girl named Becky Lee, would stand in front of groups of old white men, expounding on the genius of a document created by a group of old, white men, while being held to a strict time limit by a white man with a stopwatch (Here, played disarmingly by the fine Mike Iveson). Her adult life, in a world of conservative Supreme Court justices and a certain unnamed, but never far from mind, dictatorial American president, proves no less burdensome.

    Artifice has no place in this production. “I’m going to be 15, but I’m not going to do anything special to make myself 15,” Schreck informs us from the start, and soon enough her debate jacket comes off and time becomes fluid. She climbs through her maternal family tree revealing multiple generations of women who persisted through physical attacks and chemical depression to arrive at a point where she and her relatives are “mostly okay.” Schreck herself is quirky enough to still be emotionally attached to a stuffed animal yet self-aware enough to realize how problematic that can be for a middle-aged woman. Her writing is filled with smart, comic pivots and, as sharply directed by Oliver Butler, she underplays the cruel absurdity of old dudes in robes making decisions about her body to full, devastating effect.

    The play’s last scene shifts away from her story and embraces herstory. Schreck is joined on stage by an African-American high school girl (either Rosdely Ciprian or Thursday Williams, depending on the night), and the two hold a formal Parliamentary debate over whether or not the Constitution should be abolished. While the very presence of the girl is a kind of proof that George Washington and his crew must have gotten at least some things right, we leave the theater bearing the weight of the centuries that it took to get her there.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "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."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "At every stage of Constitution’s growth, Schreck has seemed like a flame herself: a brave little candle at the tiny Clubbed Thumb Summerworks festival in 2017, a steady hearth at New York Theatre Workshop. Now she’s in the big room, on the big stage, and Broadway’s oxygen has turned her into a wildfire. On the night I saw the show, the audience roared its response. We went up like a dry prairie before her."
    Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

    "Imagine a Broadway show that features one woman talking about herself as a 15-year-old who managed to win college scholarships by debating the merits of the U.S. Constitution. Fascinating, no? Well, actually yes. Heidi Schreck is that woman who brought this unlikely work to Broadway, and it is truly a unique theatrical gem."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "Lots of great plays acquire timeliness as their themes circle around again to find fresh echoes in the sociopolitical cycle — think Shakespeare, Shaw, Miller. But given the years of development usually involved, few new works for the stage are as instantly, trenchantly timely as writer-performer Heidi Schreck's sui generis memoir What the Constitution Means to Me."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "The engaging writer-performer is all smiles and so are we, anticipating a naive speech from a bright high school girl about her personal appreciation of the U.S. Constitution. But by the end of the show, we’ve been stirred — and challenged — by her penetrating insights into that document. This is not a spoiler, but a promise."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety