What makes a town? Is it the people or the environment? Can a town both stay the same and successfully adapt for the future? And who gets to decide and define its character?
These are the questions that sputter through “Cardinal”, a new play by Greg Pierce that opened tonight at Second Stage Theater. Surfing the zeitgeist, Mr. Pierce’s play, which makes its world premiere Off-Broadway under the direction of Kate Whoriskey, attempts to home in on the long-percolating economic crunch gripping rust-belt America, and its concomitant crises of identity and purpose, but misses the mark.
What happens when a company town loses its company and suffers job losses, declining incomes and population, increased crime and opioid addiction, and an epidemic of hopelessness has been the subject of much artistic content over the past decade. Lynn Nottage’s laborious, though Pulitzer Prize winning, play “Sweat” (2015)—incidentally also directed by Ms. Whoriskey—did a fine job mining this terrain. Mr. Pierce’s effort, more sitcom/romcom than play, lacks a serious foundation upon which to build a meaningful story or develop rich characters. It is, instead, bland and platitudinous, offering a superficial patina of hot-button discussion with little resolution or ideological point of view.
Lydia Lensky, played by Anna Chlumsky (“VEEP”), returns to her unnamed hometown in upstate New York after living in Brooklyn, studying urban planning at Oberlin, and racking up some sizable medical debts (a fact that is alluded to multiple times to no real end). The town once anchored by a factory making car parts—primarily axles—is failing fast, and its man-child of a mayor, Jeff Torm, played by Adam Pally (“Happy Endings”), has only small, incremental ideas to pitch. Lydia—think Lisa Simpson—convinces Jeff, and enough of the population, to capriciously support her big idea to “paint the town red”, or “cardinal” to be more precise. In this bid to give the town a gimmick that will infuse new capital and tourist traffic, everything in a designated downtown area is painted cardinal. And as the marketplace responds, a parade of unintended consequences begins.
A Chinese businessman from New York starts running “Red City” bus tours; dueling dumpling restaurants open; long-established businesses close; a mythical story of “metal ghosts” (factory workers killed on the job) haunting the town spawns plans for a museum. The town begins to change, adapting to its new character, and forcing its residents to grapple with their identity—and latent racial nostalgia—as new neighbors and tourists appear.
At least, in theory. The contours of the town pre-cardinal are pretty vague, its character diffuse and undefined, which makes its supposed transformation not all that transformational for the audience. This problem is further aided by the small scale of the play: just six characters and six locations denoted by furniture moving around a white brick box (sets by Derek McLane). What could be a big and provocative story about macro and micro economic and social shifts in an emblematic rust-belt town is reduced to three pairs of wan domestic squabbles that intersect and produce a few fireworks (eh, sparklers).
Lydia and Jeff start a romantic relationship that’s a creepy redux of Jeff’s rebuffed high school infatuation with Lydia’s older sister, Marie. Nancy Prenchel (Becky Ann Baker) and her autistic son, Nat (Alex Hurt), sell their bakery and crafts store, “Bread & Buttons”, to Li-Wei Chen (Stephen Park), the aforementioned businessman, and his reluctant protégé son, Jason (Eugene Young). Lydia seeks an alliance with the Chens only to be undermined by Jeff; Jason, who has the hots for Lydia, accidentally shoots Nat during a heated exchange; Nancy and Le-Wei share a moment of connection despite their differences; and the play ends where it began, Lydia and Jeff discussing plans for the town’s renewal.
Mr. Pally, who does not appear to have any professional theatre credits under his belt, is painfully uncomfortable to watch on stage, too introspective and unsure of what to do with his body. For her part, Ms. Chlumsky does a fine version of her high-strung, perky, and assertive character from “VEEP”, firmly resting in her comfort zone. Indeed, much of the play is too comfortable and roughly sketched, falling back on easy tropes and saying little that is new. The only real surprise of the play—however reductive it might be—is that an ambitious woman’s big idea fails, and in the end she learns that she should have just pursued the mediocre man’s idea to begin with. “If only women listened to men!” isn’t exactly the takeaway message we need in 2018.
Bottom Line: Greg Pierce’s new play “Cardinal” is bland and platitudinous, offering a superficial patina of hot-button discussion about economic and social change with little resolution or ideological point of view; too comfortable and vague, it falls back on easy tropes and says little that is new. Skip this one.
Second Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theatre
305 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 95 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: January 30, 2018
Final Performance: February 25, 2018