‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ review: Heidi Schreck’s play is timely and passionate

‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ runs through Oct. 28 at New York Theatre Workshop. 79 E. 4th St., nytw.org.

“You probably think I’ve gone off on a tangent,” playwright and Obie-winning actress Heidi Schreck acknowledges in the middle of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a freewheeling, politically charged and extremely personal monologue in which she recreates her surprisingly lucrative former hobby of delivering speeches extolling the U.S. Constitution at American Legion Halls as a teenager in order to win money for college.

Speakers were expected to find a personal connection to any given clause of the Constitution (picked at random out of a can) and preferably also come up with some kind of cute, descriptive metaphor for the Constitution such as a “witch’s caldron” or “patchwork quilt.”

Schreck also uses the piece (directed by Oliver Butler) to examine her individual and family history (with many intimate and graphic details) and analytically discuss the impact and shortcomings of the Constitution and modern Supreme Court cases when it comes to women’s privacy, equality and safety.

The set consists of a musty old legion hall surrounded by open space, which allows Schreck to easily step in and out of time and change her mode of presentation.

She is assisted by Mike Iveson (who both plays a time card-holding moderator and provides “positive male energy”) and a real-life teenage debater (at my performance, the poised, lawyer-like 14-year-old Rosdely Ciprian). As a finale, Ms. Schreck and the teen engage in a parliamentary-style debate over whether to abolish the Constitution altogether and start again from scratch. An audience member gets to choose the winner.

The scattershot, seemingly improvised style of the piece is both its major strength and weakness. Schreck’s unpredictability and hyperactivity can be enlivening: one moment she is recalling her teenage obsession with “Dirty Dancing,” and then she is reciting the text of the Fourteenth Amendment and providing historical context, and then she is rattling off grim statistics on violence against women.

That being said, many sections are repetitive, rambling and hard to follow. It is a show that manages to feel thin and overwhelming at the same time.

Premiering in the midst of the Senate vote on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Schreck probably could not have picked a better time to do her show. At my performance, the audience seemed unusually alert, eager to confront fundamental constitutional issues and understand their impact on American citizens.

Following John Strand’s Antonin Scalia drama “The Originalist,” “What the Constitution Means to Me” marks the second show I have seen in just a few weeks where audience members received complimentary pocket copies of the Constitution. Perhaps “Hamilton” should start giving out copies of “The Federalist Papers.”