'The Power of Duff': Theater Review

Michael Lamont
'The Power of Duff'
Divine comedy offers miracles and laughter, but little else.

Stephen Belber's 2013 comedy about answered prayers and TV news undergoes substantial revisions — with mixed results.

There is humility in prayer, but there is also hubris. Believers supplicate to a higher power while, at the same time, drawing attention to some overlooked injustice or some unbestowed reward. There’s a whiff of this ironic conundrum in playwright Stephen Belber’s comedy The Power of Duff. But despite a strong cast and an efficiently mounted new production, this revamped version of the 2013 play carves an unfortunate arc from clever comedy to maudlin melodrama.

Charlie Duff (Josh Stamberg) is an anchorman for Channel 10 News in Rochester, N.Y. Following the death of his father, he extemporizes a prayer at the end of a broadcast one night, incensing his producer (a hilarious Eric Ladin), who declares the evening news is no place for religion. The fact is that Duff isn’t particularly religious, but given his recent loss — combined with a failed marriage, an estranged teenage son and a string of unfulfilling sexual dalliances — he feels a little adrift and spontaneously reaches out. And the audience answers. The phones light up, demonstrators gather, and soon he’s trending on Twitter. But when some of his prayers are miraculously answered, Duff finds himself in a position for which he isn’t prepared. 

Belber conjures up a potent situation offering numerous compelling options to explore — the place of faith in media, the nature of miracles, the power of the pulpit, the scourge of egomaniacal punditry and the importance of civic obligation. In the end, he brushes up against some of these but commits to none.

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Following the play’s 2013 world premiere at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, Belber made some radical changes. Reducing the role of Duff’s ex-wife to a voice on the phone results in renewed focus on the conflict with his estranged son, but ultimately it plays as a “you were never there for me, Dad” cliche. An AIDS patient miraculously saved by Duff’s prayers in the 2013 version has become an inmate at Five Points Correctional Facility, where he is beaten by guards to within an inch of his life.

As the miracles pile up, Duff does not become an egomaniacal media mouthpiece, as might be expected. Instead, he remains bemusedly inert — a more unconventional dramatic choice. Only Belber stumbles in the second act, as bemusement becomes Duff’s defining characteristic. Stamberg embodies the role with a warm insouciance that makes him likable, despite being emotionally obtuse. But he can’t overcome the burden of inertia. His prayers occur as afterthoughts at first, before he starts taking requests from his viewers. And while they get results, asking isn’t doing. Though faced with the most compelling dilemma in the play, Duff remains the least interesting character.

Meanwhile, co-anchor Sue Raspell (Elizabeth Rodriguez, in an understated performance) is divinely inspired to leave her husband and devote herself to the care of her autistic son. Drawn in the familiar mold of a neurotic overachiever, Sue is described as “a cryogenic Michele Bachmann.” Accessorizing her with an autistic son comes off as a convenient way to give the character some dimension.

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As sportscaster John Ebbs, Brendan Griffin (Clybourne Park) has similar struggles. A grown-up kid, Ebbs likes to drink beer and talk about chicks. In time, we learn he is manic-depressive but hides it well, which is why we never see him grappling with his illness. Like Sue, John is adequately described to the audience but only superficially explored.

While many might agree that the nightly news is no place for prayer, the fact is that Duff is a catalyst for good in his community. This conundrum is easily the most interesting element of Belber’s play. It is a question that defies easy answers, one that accommodates opposite viewpoints. It is also a question that Belber assiduously avoids addressing, resorting instead to melodrama.

Originally conceived as a screenplay, The Power of Duff plays out in a series of short scenes, as in a movie. On the stage, this structure gives the play a brisk pace befitting comedy. Belber’s one-liners are often uproarious, and director Peter DuBois imbues his cast with timing that maximizes the laughs. Working against production designer Aaron Rhyne’s monolithic whitewashed brick wall, the actors make deft use of the nearly bare stage, often performing against projections of events outside the newsroom.

With this reworking of his play, Belber presumably has improved it. But while it amuses and raises provocative questions, further revisions may be needed to unleash the nascent power still dormant in The Power of Duff.

Cast: Josh Stamberg, Brendan Griffin, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Joe Paulik, Eric Ladin, Tanner Buchanan, Maurice Williams

Director: Peter DuBois

Playwright: Stephen Belber

Set designer: Clint Ramos

Lighting designer: Rui Rita

Sound designer: M.L. Dogg

Costume designer: Bobby Frederick Tilley II

Presented by the Geffen Playhouse