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Theatre in Review: Cardinal (Second Stage)

Anna Chlumsky. Photo: Joan Marcus

Cardinal is about people who will do anything to save a dying town; the only problem is, there's no there there. The municipality in question is located in Upstate New York, its sole raison d'ĂȘtre being a now-closed car-parts factory. Since then, the place has been hemorrhaging money and people; houses are abandoned, streetlights are dark, and opioid addicts are lined up outside houses whose windows are covered over with plastic bags. Lydia Lensky, a determined young native, has a plan to turn things around: It involves painting the downtown district a single shade of red -- hence the title -- thus making it a vacation destination.

There's no particular reason why anyone should fall for this scheme: Lydia is a woman of no credentials or accomplishments, and her expertise is limited to having studied urban issues as an undergraduate. And there's the little matter of that time when, as an adolescent, she and her then-boyfriend broke into the local power plant and caused a blackout that lasted seven hours. "It was a dumb thing to do," she admits, pitching her idea at a town meeting. "Yes, I was a dumb teenager. I apologize. So...movin' on!"

Would you entrust the fate of your hometown to this airhead? Nevertheless, Lydia makes a confident presentation, citing the case of an all-blue town in Morocco and a "yellow city" in Mexico -- both tourist magnets, she insists -- and somehow a referendum passes. I suppose the locals decide that too much is at stake not to give her plan a try. Only trouble is, we have no sense of what's at stake. Cardinal is a notably unevocative piece of writing, and the playwright, Greg Pierce, gives us little sense of what the town was like in its heyday or why the way of life it once offered should be preserved. (Derek McLane's scenery, consisting of several drab arrangements of white brick walls suggestive of an abandoned factory, is no help in this regard.) We are asked to care about a place defined entirely by what it isn't; it remains an abstraction, an outline badly in need of filling in.

If we don't see enough of this nameless town, we see far too much of Lydia. Entirely self-absorbed, she is the kind of go-getter whose idea of post-coital cuddling consists of producing a tablet and calling up the list of media interviews scheduled for the following day. To be fair, she is sleeping with Jeff, the town's feckless mayor -- whether for reasons of attraction or to keep him under her thumb is never made clear. (Jeff has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, facts that interest Lydia not at all.) Cozying up to him with pillow talk, she mentions that she once spied him having sex with her sister -- a choice that does not have an aphrodisiac effect. Lydia also has a remarkable ability to make her urban-transformation plan entirely about her. As Jason, another business associate/potential boyfriend, notes, "Whenever you talk about the people here, you call them idiots or junkies or skinheads, or you say they don't get you."

Largely because some kind of plot development is required, Lydia ends up embroiled with Li-Wei Chen, a New York-based businessman, and his son, the aforementioned Jason, who start sending tours to the town, imposing on it a fake mythology about the ghosts of steelworkers who died in a factory fire. (The locals aren't too happy about this, and even less do they like seeing so many Asian faces on their main street.) When she fails to drive the Chens out of business, Lydia hatches a new scheme, partnering with them to turn the empty factory building into a hospital specializing in Chinese healing techniques. Among other things, Pierce would have you believe that Lydia, a member of Debtors Anonymous with no track record in business, puts together a consortium of investors in no time at all.

Even at their most ingenious, Lydia's schemes fail to engage, because the town remains stubbornly out of view, lacking the profile that would make its fate seem meaningful. The only locals we meet are Nancy, a bakery owner, and Nat, her son, a pastry-making savant despite his severe autism. Nancy resists Lydia's cardinal-red scheme, partly because it would require redoing the sign created by her late husband, Walt, and partly because she dislikes being forced to change -- so much so that she sells the business to the first bidder, throwing over her life without a second's thought. The Chen family's tours cause a spike in customers, but, she says, "Where are my old friends? It's as though the place...I grew up in was just a dream and now I'm waking up." Nancy and Nat are meant to represent the collateral damage of Lydia's overreaching ways, but they are too palely drawn to make much of an impression; Nat exists mostly to gin up the climax, when, in a bit of too-easy melodrama, he runs wild with a shotgun.

I suspect that, on paper, Cardinal seemed timely, what with its portrait of forgotten small-town Americans contending with slick big-city entrepreneurs -- but it's puzzling how such a potentially sharp conflict yields such bland results. It's a not-quite drama and a not-quite comedy, a sort-of satire desperately lacking the point of view that would bring it life. Kate Whoriskey's staging can't find any urgency in these rambling, unfocused proceedings, and her cast proceeds tentatively. As Lydia, a character who basically makes no sense -- Why is she so driven? What are we to make of her crushing debt? If she's a native, where is her family? -- Anna Chlumsky is energetic but grating; she has little chemistry with Adam Pally's Jeff, who is little more than a compendium of neurotic symptoms. (If Lydia and Jeff are typical products of the town, maybe it should be razed in the name of urban renewal.) As Nancy, Li-Wei, and Jason, Becky Ann Baker, Stephen Park, and Eugene Young all appear to have dropped in on their way to somewhere else. Alex Hurt turns in the most interesting performance as Nat, whose delicately balanced existence falls apart when he loses his routine at the family bakery.

As mentioned, McLane's scenery -- except for a lovely horizon revealed near the end -- is oddly lacking in character, and at certain moments it confuses: When Lydia and Jason break into the factory, it is filled with rows of hanging coats -- a strange detail for a venue where axles were once manufactured. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting provides some attractive upstage washes using the title color. Jennifer Moeller's costumes are solid, and Leah Gelpe's sound design includes lovely guitar passages. But, sadly, cardinal red is the only vivid hue on display in an otherwise colorless exercise; Pierce and company end up painting the theatre gray. -- David Barbour


(31 January 2018)

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