The performance is itself an exercise in critical thinking. Schreck almost immediately goes "over time" to talk about how the Constitution has both liberated and imprisoned women's bodies. She burrows into her own family's painful past of spousal abuse; in one section, about her grandma Betty, she has to read from notecards so that she can muscle through the text without crying. In two years of building the show, Schreck has crafted a powerful argument that uses everything at hand: legal analysis, a dive into history, a consuming rage at sexual-assault statistics and her own very personal reasoning. (There's a scary and hilarious audio recording of Supreme Court justices that's worth the price of admission.) When her own raw grief threatens to overwhelm her, she invites a young local debater-either Rosdely Ciprian or Thursday Williams-for a sparkling debate, which offers tangible hope for the future.
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME Broadway Reviews
Written and performed by two-time Obie Award winner Heidi Schreck (Grand Concourse, "I Love Dick") and directed by Obie Award winner Oliver Butler (The Amateurs, The Light Years), What the Constitution Means to Me opened March 31, 2019, at the Helen HayesTheater (240 W 44th Street, New York, NY).
Fifteen-year-old Heidi Schreck earned her college tuition money by winning Constitutional debate competitions across the United States. In her boundary-breaking new play, the Obie Award winner resurrects her teenage self in order to trace the profound relationship between four generations of women in her own family and the founding document that dictated their rights and citizenship. This hilarious, hopeful and "achingly human" (Exeunt Magazine) exploration breathes new life into our Constitution and imagines how it will shape the next generation of American women.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Shattering, galvanizing and very funny, Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me close reads an old text in new and breathlessly exciting ways. When Schreck, a longtime Off-Broadway actor and more recently a playwright, was a teenager, she traveled around American Legions Halls, winning money for college by delivering a speech called Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution. In this mostly solo show (Schreck is joined by the actor Mike Iveson as a legionnaire and later by a teenage debater), Schreck, sunny in a daffodil blazer stands inside a re-creation of one of those halls. (The design is by Rachel Hauck.) Persuasively, she conjures both that brace-faced Patrick Swayze-swooning teenager, and the woman she became.
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, Ms. 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, Ms. 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.
It's all an extraordinary balance of historical fact, legal analysis and personal experience presented with a warm, conversational tone. Because a great deal of her text involves facts and statistics concerning violence against women ("More American women have been killed by violent male partners in the last century than Americans have been killed in wars, including 9/11."), Schreck explains that it's important to her to have "some positive male energy up here with me," so she shares the stage with Mike Iveson, who at first dutifully takes on the role of moderator/timekeeper in his VFW uniform, but then reveals a bit more of himself.
"What the Constitution Means to Me" concludes with a debate between Schreck and a bright teenager (Rosdely Ciprian alternates performances with Thursday Williams) over whether the Constitution should be defended or abolished and redrafted. The play loses some of its emotional force in the final stretch. (The structural looseness does wear thin at points.) But in bringing to the stage a youngster with the same passionate engagement of the 15-year-old Schreck, the show ends on a note of optimism that the battle for social progress is in confident hands.
Watching the spirited back-and-forth that wraps up this unique, stimulating and exquisitely heartfelt show on such an uplifting note, you can't help but wish that the primary and election debates in our country's hopelessly mired political system were even half as intellectually vigorous, half as perceptive and compassionate. If that were the case, the choices of every thinking person perhaps would be clear and our problems well on the way to being solved. We can dream, right?
REVIEW: Broadway’s ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ melds radical constitutional theory with genuine warmth and humor
Red meat for liberal feminists and clearly aimed at inter-generational audiences, "What the Constitution Means to Me" is part progressive political lecture, part personal confessional, and part manifesto for feminist reform. The show, which opened Sunday night at the Helen Hayes Theater and will run at least through July 21, captures the political restlessness of a moment when many Americans are looking back at the assumptions and power structure behind what they were asked to do in their own past and feeling plenty ready to view those experiences through a revisionist lens.
Can a piece of theater (or any art) make you better? After seeing this show for the second time (after last year's run at New York Theatre Workshop), I believe so. Sure, there have been works of art that caused riots, or won "obscenity" cases, even some-like 2002's The Exonerated-that spurred politicians to address wrongful conviction and the death penalty. Art can make a difference, it can improve you. But what does it take? Brutal honesty and plenty of facts. Schreck provides both in abundance-along with natural charisma and loads of humor.
‘What The Constitution Means To Me’ Broadway Review: Heidi Schreck’s Brilliant Lesson In Life & Civics
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.
It's especially shrewd of her to conclude the show with a literal debate with a high-school orator. Rosdely Ciprian, a 14-year-old freshman, held up her end with admirable ease at the performance this reviewer caught. (Thursday Williams, a senior at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, plays the role three nights a week.) Honestly, how great is that?
I hadn't seen "What the Constitution Means to Me" previously, so can't measure whether this show loses any of its intimacy in a larger venue, the 597-seat Hayes Theater. But if the scale of "What the Constitution Means to Me" is small, the emotions are big - and after months of performances, this formally complicated show (mostly a monologue, sometimes a play, occasionally improvised) is now a beautifully-oiled machine.
Schreck is an engaging storyteller with a delivery that seems improvised even when she is sticking to her winding but always-focused script. Again and again, she manages to explore the politics of constitutional rights through the lens of the personal. And of the individuals left out as Americans saw their rights expand.
The only other person on stage is the unnamed American Legion officer. In that supporting role, Mike Iveson evokes Dana Carvey doing George H.W. Bush - just the right amount of silly earnestness. That is until he, too, breaks the fourth wall to tell us a story about Mike Iveson. This may be to give Schreck a break during the show, which is 100 minutes with no intermission. While Iveson has an emotional tale, the diversion doesn't make sense. One wants to go back and tell 15-year-old Heidi: "Someday you're going to have a Broadway stage all to yourself, and people are going to pay to listen to you talk about the things you care the most about. You have the right to not share your stage with a guy, even if he has, as you say, 'positive male energy.'" Not all our rights are spelled out because, as she (and the author of the Ninth Amendment) notes, "How long do we want this document to be?" B+