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The latest play by Greg Pierce was commissioned by off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theater, which is giving it a first-class, world-premiere production featuring RV stars Anna Chlumsky (Veep) and Adam Pally (Happy Endings, The Mindy Project). It’s certainly admirable that the theater company is nurturing works by talented playwrights such as this one, whose credits include the dramas Slowgirl and Her Requiem and books for the musicals Kid Victory and The Landing, both in collaboration with famed composer John Kander. But it might have been nice if, before giving Pierce the assignment, they ensured he had something to say.
That he didn’t is on sad display in Cardinal, which simultaneously attempts to be satire, drama and rom-com, failing dismally at all three. Pierce’s shaggy-dog story revolves around the perky, enterprising Lydia (Chlumsky) and the dorky Jeff (Pally), the hapless mayor of the small upstate New York town to which she has returned after failing in the music business. Seeing that the once prosperous industrial town is now on its last legs, Lydia presents an intriguingly off-the-wall proposition. It involves painting the town red. Literally, painting the town red to make it a tourist attraction. She even knows where she can get 14,000 gallons of the requisite paint.
Jeff is understandably skeptical at first, but — motivated both by his town’s desperation and his attraction to Lydia, whose older sister he used to date until she dumped him — he goes along with the plan. Lydia delivers a sales pitch to the local residents in the school’s “gymnatorium,” in which she naturally provides the slogan, “Let’s paint the town red!”
Not everyone is thrilled with the change, including Nancy (Becky Ann Baker, from Girls), who owns the decades-old local bakery where her developmentally disabled son Nat (Alex Hurt) works. Meanwhile, Lydia finds herself dealing with Li-Wei Chen (Stephen Park), a Chinese entrepreneur who sees the newly colorful community as a prime opportunity for his bus tour business. He also has hopes that sparks will fly between Lydia and his son Jason (Eugene Young).
While its absurd plotline would seem to hold the promise for satirical humor about dying Rust Belt communities, Cardinal instead goes in so many different and unfulfilling directions that it flounders aimlessly. The subplots include Lydia and Jeff becoming lovers (complete with the actors romping in the sheets in their underwear); their relationship eventually falling apart; Lydia suffering from a bad back; a plan to turn the town’s abandoned axle factory into a hospital; a violent incident resulting in one of the characters getting shot; and the town becoming a sort of mini-Chinatown, complete with competing dumpling shops. And why, oh why, does Lydia keep calling attention to her Jewishness for no apparent reason?
Bouncing around from one plot strand and stylistic device to another, the play feels much, much longer than its 90 minutes. Director Kate Whoriskey, who dealt with similar themes to far more resonant effect in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Sweat, fails to provide coherence to the scattered proceedings.
The performers appear to be visibly struggling with the clumsy material. Chlumsky displays her natural appeal and sharp comic timing, but Lydia ultimately proves far more annoying than endearing. Pally handles the comedy reasonably well but struggles with his character’s darker side. Only Baker and Hurt manage to be affecting, but perhaps that’s because they seem to be in a different play altogether, a much subtler work that’s probably the one Second Stage should have commissioned.
Venue: Second Stage Theatre New York
Cast: Becky Ann Baker, Anna Chlumsky, Alex Hurt, Adam Pally, Stephen Park, Eugene Young
Playwright: Greg Pierce
Director: Kate Whoriskey
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting designer: Amith Chandrashaker
Sound designer: Leah Gele
Presented by Second Stage Theatre
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