A More Perfect Union

What if the law clerks of adversarial Supreme Court justices crossed political lines?

With:
Maddie - Melissa Friedman James - Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.

Canadian scribe Vern Thiessen raises a piquant political question in “A More Perfect Union.” What if — instead of fighting to the death over partisan issues — the law clerks of adversarial Supreme Court justices crossed political lines and worked together on cases? What if they were to share information, bolster an opponent’s argument, maybe even sleep together? Wait — that last example of bipartisan collaboration feels a bit contrived. It also feels like a cheap shot, guaranteed to trivialize whatever legit ethical challenges the scribe raises in this schematic two-hander, coyly branded “a serious comedy.”

Troy Hourie’s extremely handsome set of the private library of the Supreme Court confers unearned gravitas on this romantic political fantasy. Under the lush lighting of Tyler Micoleau, vintage chandeliers, solid wood desks, thick red carpeting and an imaginative floor-to-ceiling wall treatment consisting of gigantic law books are served up on a raised stage that says: We are smart, we are serious, we are above it all.

Maddie (Melissa Friedman), a Jewish workaholic who clerks for a conservative justice she calls “the Wise One,” considers this study nook her private domain. She’s both annoyed and affronted when her space is invaded by James (Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.), a full-of-himself charmer who clerks for a liberal justice he calls “the Enlightened One.”

This “meet cute” scene doesn’t go well, however, as Thiessen (“Einstein’s Gift”) proves awkward at the light, sexy, serio-comic dialogue that accompanies the mating rituals of the young and horny. Instead of being clever and seductive, their arch banter is merely irritating.

Scrambling for higher ground, both Thiessen and helmer Ron Russell are on firmer footing when the play shifts to political content. James, a black man from a privileged background, makes a strong argument, persuasively delivered by Simmons, that the spirit of democracy would be better served if the justices’ competitive clerks would ditch their differences and work together on the potentially ground-breaking cases before the court.

Maddie, who seems to have the bigger brain, is so stimulated by the idea that her hormones kick in, lending a palpable sexual energy to the arguments that Friedman delivers with a passion. Carried away by their high-minded ideas, James and Maddie mate on Maddie’s desk — which leads to predictable, if unbelievable, complications.

Despite the palpable exertions of director and cast, making the personal drama fit the political thesis proves a losing battle, probably because it’s so obvious that Thiessen concocted the love story to illustrate his intellectual argument.

Thesps are adept enough at putting over a line with a political punch, like Maddie’s assertive analysis of their professional duties to the chief justices: “It is our job to keep the shit of the world away from them.” But they choke up when they’re put in a contrived romantic situation that has them arguing about whether or not it’s OK to screw in these hallowed halls of justice.

The question remains, could they convince a jury of their peers?

A More Perfect Union

East 13th Street Theater; 156 seats; $37.50 top

Production: An Epic Theater Ensemble presentation of a play in one act by Vern Thiessen. Directed by Ron Russell.

Creative: Sets, Troy Hourie; costumes, Theresa Squire; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Ron Russell; production stage manager, Erin Maureen Koster. Opened May 12, 2009. Reviewed May 9. Running time: 1 HOUR, 10 MIN.

Cast: Maddie - Melissa Friedman James - Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.

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