Volume 78 - Number 49 / May 13 - 19 , 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Theater

A MORE PERFECT UNION
Written by Vern Thiessen
Directed by Ron Russell
An Epic Theatre Ensemble production
Through June 7th
East 13th Street Theater, 136 East 13th Street
(212) 352-3101 

Photo by Carol Rosegg

Melissa Friedman and Godfrey L. Simmons as law clerks in love

‘Supreme’ romance blooms, amidst politics and law

Playwright Thiessen takes his time, gets it right

By Jerry Tallmer

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

As Hollywood would say, they meet cute — in the library of the United States Supreme Court. At 10 o’clock at night. The joint is empty, except for these two, there to study up on case histories to feed to the two very different justices for whom they separately clerk.

Law clerks, in their 30s. James and Maddie. He is black and male. She is white and Jewish. They start out abrasively, snappishly — his chomping of sandwiches, her icy demands for silence — and end up…well, that’s what this night’s work is all about. A good script for Tracy and Hepburn if Tracy and Hepburn were in their early 30s.

Of course it’s about something else too — something called The Law, and Justice, and Democracy, and Equality, of the sexes and otherwise.

He and she. Not Tracy and Hepburn, but actors Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., and Melissa Friedman, in Vern Thiessen’s “A More Perfect Union” by way of an Epic Ensemble production (billed as the “World Premiere Off-Broadway”).

If, back in the fall of 2005, you saw a play called “Einstein’s Gift” on Theater Row’s 42nd Street, you know who Vern Thiessen is. His “Einstein’s Gift” was about the genius-strokes for good and evil of German Jewish Nobel laureates Albert Einstein and Fritz Haber, and in 2003 it had won the Governor General Award (a Canadian equivalent to our Pulitzer). 

“Einstein’s Gift” had taken the then 39-year-old Thiessen (born March 27, 1964, Winnipeg, Canada) seven years to finish, somewhat more than his usual two to five years. 

“I take my time,” says playwright Thiessen, who in 2007 moved from Canada to New York City — to Astoria, Queens, where at the moment he lives alone, arguing politics with a stepdaughter, whom he describes as somewhere between a Reagan Republican and a Goldwater conservative. 

The 2005 American premiere of “Einstein’s Gift” had been an Epic Theatre Ensemble production, and following its 2005 Off-Broadway run, Epic commissioned its author to write something new for them. 

Says Thiessen: “We sat down and talked about what such a play might be. Decided on U.S. politics and a romantic comedy. I started scouting around. I’d read in Vanity Fair about Supreme Court law clerks discussing Bush v. Gore and strongly disagreeing with it. And there’d been a lot of books about law clerks” [and their input on their Justices].

Mr. Thiessen, were you ever a law student yourself?

“Oh God, no,” the playwright replied, breaking up.

How about the black and white thing? Where’d that idea come from?

“I wanted to write for two specific actors who had been in ‘Einstein’s Gift’ — Melissa Friedman, who played Einstein’s wife, and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., who did several roles.”

So the very colors of these two actors’ skins determined part of the course of “A More Perfect Union”?

“That’s right. They became very influential in how I shaped it.”

Ron Russell, the director of “Einstein’s Gift,” is also the director of “A More Perfect Union.”

From the play. After James and Maddie have stopped snooting one another. Quite the opposite. Distinctly the opposite. They are now discussing one particular case:

MADDIE: Wrong? Nothing is WRONG, James. We all have the same crayons, and when we’re finished drawing, we each hold up our picture to the Justices and say: Mine’s prettier. And at the end of the day, the Justices decide which is better and shake hands. But neither picture is WRONG.

JAMES: Not only has your picture been PAINTED, Maddie. It’s already been FRAMED — it’s called PRECEDENT.

MADDIE: Suddenly he’s Mr. Precedent!

JAMES: There’s case law up the ass on this.

MAGGIE: And if precedents were sacred, Brown v. Board of Education would never have been heard.

JAMES: Tell me, how is it a FEMALE JEWISH lawyer is arguing against thirty years of discrimination laws — laws that have made it possible for YOU AND ME to be here.


Winnipeg, where Vern Thiessen was born, is near Fargo, he said.

“But most of my life was spent in Edmonton, near the Rocky Mountains. I’m from an immigrant family of Russian Mennonites who came to Canada after World War II. My father’s a sheet-metal worker; my mother’s a cleaning lady. They’re both still alive.

“Growing up, I went to theater all the time. My sister took me. I saw ‘Godspell’ when I was seven. My parents spoke German and loved to tell stories, and there was a German theater in Winnipeg that did everything.”

So, Mr. Thiessen, now we have an American president named Barack Obama, lending a certain relevance —

“Yes! And after the election, things took on a very different life and tone.”

And now, we have Mr. Justice David H, Souter announcing his impending retirement.

“Yes!” With something resembling a chuckle: “I’d love to be able to say I called him up and asked him to quit in order to help the play.”

Certiorari, Mr. Justice, Certiorari! You could look it up, right here in this law library. 

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