‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ Review: Pursuits of Happiness

‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ Review: Pursuits of Happiness

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Note the last two words in the title of Heidi Schreck’s hit show, “What the Constitution Means to Me”: This is a highly personal take, not a historical or legal lecture. Yet Schreck succeeds in widening her autobiographical play into a paean for basic fairness: The American Constitution, admired as it is, fails to protect all of us from violence and discrimination.

Like the recent captures of “Hamilton” and “American Utopia,” albeit on a much more intimate scale, “What the Constitution Means to Me” (streaming on Amazon) successfully preserves a Broadway experience for the screen. Schreck, who has the amiable presence, storytelling verve and pedagogical chops of an ideal schoolteacher, starts off by recounting how she paid for college with the money she earned as a teenager giving speeches about the Constitution in American Legion halls.

A terrific actress who manages to make the text feel off the cuff, Schreck starts by channeling her 15-year-old self, then quickly broadens the scope. She explores both her personal history (including her abortion) and family history to methodically expose the biases and omissions baked into the Constitution. And always, she makes the potentially dry material accessible, while her sidekick Mike Iveson, projecting “positive male energy,” has a quiet, affecting presence.

The director Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) used a multicamera setup to shoot a few performances, as well as a rehearsal, of Oliver Butler’s production. She refrains from flashy moves, though a few judicious shots of the audience help widen the frame by suggesting the idea of community.

At the end of each performance, Schreck faced one of two poised New York high school debaters over whether the Constitution should be kept or abolished. (In the movie, it’s Rosdely Ciprian; you can see Thursday Williams in a bonus video.) A random audience member was then asked to pick the winner. A final panel informs us that the Constitution was kept at 123 of the 183 Broadway performances.

What the Constitution Means to Me
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch on Amazon.

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