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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Susie Sokol, Mike Iveson, Ben Williams, and Vin Knight.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Hate legalese? Not sure lawyers ever say what they mean? Don't trust courts to get the most basic things right? If any of these forms of paranoia keeps you as far away from the courthouse (even those depicted on the stage or on TV) as from a minefield, then you have nothing to fear from Arguendo. Okay, so this show that just opened at The Public Theater is bursting with law talk. Its greatest virtue—and one of its biggest problems—is that it makes the gobbledygook so insignificant to the proceedings that it's easy to forget you're even watching something that unfolds almost entirely in front of the Supreme Court.

This energetically plodding project of Elevator Repair Service, whose previous works have included The Select (which painstakingly recited the first chunk of The Sun Also Rises) and Gatz (which regurgitated every word of The Great Gatsby), uses as its lines much of the 1991 case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc. Titillating in its particulars—can the State of Indiana prohibit nightclub dancers from performing nude?—and potentially shattering in its implications—is any and all dance covered under the First Amendment?—it would seem to be as good a basis as any for this sort of treatment.

Whether any case could survive it without becoming a parody of itself and its underlying aesthetic is another question altogether. Courtroom dramas and legal procedurals benefit from action and dialogue that guide you from beginning to end. Real life, alas, is never so clean, and there's no way to not be aware of that here. Presenting a transcript of the arguments and the summary of the judgment (but neither the judgment nor the concurring and dissenting opinions), full of the kinds of "uh" moments, bewildered repetitions, and speakers getting lost and having to start over that scripted entertainment rescues us from, does not encourage tidiness, so any "narrative"—if indeed there is to be one—has to come from somewhere else.

The ERS troupe, under the direction of John Collins, has decided the inciting force will be the very concept of decency itself. Beginning with a press conference about the case, in which a Michigan dancer pontificates about the implications of the decision on her career in her own state, and ending with an examination of the shells the rest of us hide behind, the show is consumed with the matter of what we wear, why we wear it, and why it matters. The theme and its evocation collide when the respondent's attorney, Mr. Ennis, consumes the stage in an elaborate (and hyperextended) strip tease that, um, lays bare the notion that free expression should be unrestricted. But throughout, as the actors' roles shift to reveal the deeper complexities of the relationship between appearance and identity, the message is every bit as clear and in your face.

Perhaps too much so. Though ERS delves deeper than you may expect into the issue, the fun and motion it necessarily injects overwhelms most of the insight it proffers. Ben Rubin's projections, for example, are a vertigo inducing collection of microfiche-style clips drawn from decisions, the Constitution, and other such places. Though they do reinforce the actors' lines, they compete with them just as often and do little to support most of what else unfolds visually. (David Zinn designed the elegant but sparse two-level set.)

More damaging is that you never sense that the show takes seriously the justices, their concerns, or their authority. Most of the nine of the Rehnquist court are rendered as bracingly broad vaudeville caricatures, approaching commedia dell'arte archetypes in their sheer sniveling scope. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the only one granted an unvarnished sympathetic portrayal, and then only in a brief coda.) Because of the overarching implication that the justices' views and opinions of the facts surrounding the case obscured the vexing Constitutional question at its core, practically everything that happens comes across as a cruel joke.

It's not much of a stretch to interpret mocking the outcome of the case (public-record spoiler: the court ruled that states can regulate and ban nudity) as the intended point, but even that doesn't make for a dramatically satisfying evening. The scattershot staging and aggressive performances from Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, and Ben Williams quickly become exhausting, while failing to consistently energize the droning conversations between the lawyers and justices. Sokol's portrayal of a wounded Ginsburg is oddly touching, and Iveson deserves a badge of courage for the gusto with which he tackles Ennis's final summation.

Even so, it's not enough to bring focus to the mess. The play's title is a Latin term meaning "for the sake of argument," but too many of its own arguments are more concerned with being entertaining than being clear. Maybe a little extra legalese isn't such a bad thing after all?

Through October 13
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes with no intermission.
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