Watch What You Say

William C. Kovacsik's Scales of Justice is a classic B-minus play—tries to tackle big themes, winds up stating the obvious. It opens in the cluttered office of the St. Andrew's Law School Review, where we meet wishy-washy Paul (Vincent Roca), who has split with his girlfriend, Trish (Erin Shayla Cullen), and is in the process of crumpling up job-rejection notices. He needs to break out of his funk badly, so when uppity WASP Dean (Keith Patterson) tells Paul he has landed far-right Supreme Court Justice Walter Allen Hanbury (Richard Meese) to speak at their annual dinner, this seems like the thing that'll do it. He okays the Hanbury date, which Dean and bowtie-wearing black conservative student Arthur (Michael Matts) droolingly approve of, but the play's other archetypes—Gay Jew Joshua (Graham Sibley), Angry Feminist/Closet Lesbo Erika (Jerri Tubbs), Jivey Black Chick Melissa (Linna Carter) and Nice Girl Next Door Trish do not. After Hanbury is uninvited by the students on a 4-3 vote, the justice asks Paul to visit him in D.C. Something of a Satan figure, Hanbury suggests Paul can work around the vote by asking the school's provost to invite the justice instead. If he does, Hanbury tells him, he "will not be forgotten." Paul does.

Much pissing and moaning ensues, with all kinds of allusions about free speech and the Constitution. Does everyone truly have the right to be heard, or just those whose opinions we like? Does the First Amendment grant you permission to talk smack about people, even when that smack is true, no matter what the human consequences? And how 'bout that irony of law school students who aim to make careers out of defending speech that is anti-free speech?

Those questions are punctuated between each scene, as various cast members pop up between a quartered copy of the Constitution lining the stage's back wall to recite random law quotes from noted peeps like Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Melvin Belli. It's done to point out how deeply this hallowed document is felt within the American psyche and how such simple words penned so long ago reverberate. But in the context of the play, it's a distraction more than anything. The sequences also touch on the play's more severe problem: it often feels like we're being lectured—even worse, lectured about something everyone should have been made to memorize by the time they hit their first high school political science class. Yeah, in a democracy, everyone—no matter how big an asshole—has a right to his opinion . . . and?

Perhaps Kovacsik could do an updating of some sort (this run is a world premiere), with maybe a few lines about the Office of Homeland Security, which really does look like a free-speech threat. But as it's written, the play is merely a halfway-decent civics lesson for the kids, if the kids are into hot lesbo action. At its ambiguous ending, a burdened-looking Paul and Hanbury toast to victory, as Paul seems to wonder what, if anything, has been won—at least that keeps the entire thing from turning completely into an Afterschool Special morality tale.

Scales of Justice at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-1014; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sept. 29, 2 p.m. Through Oct. 5. $20.

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