Greg Pierce’s new play “Cardinal,” now premiering at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre, has enough issues to fill a month’s worth of New York Times’ Sunday magazines: The upside and downside of urban renewal/gentrification; the violence of racism; the dangers of addiction (and switching from one addiction to another); and the challenges of dealing with an autistic adult.
It also has characters, many of them flawed and troubled, one can invest in. And given the serious subjects it chooses to explore in a mere 90 minutes, there’s also abundant humor in the script, brought out by Kate Whoriskey’s direction. And yet, the result is a meandering muddle where the various elements never cohere in a way to form a satisfying play -- and not even a hard-working and experienced cast of stage veterans can overcome its difficulties.
Pierce’s somewhat convoluted plot is set in motion by the sudden return of Lydia (“Veep” star Anna Chlumsky in overdrive mode) to the small, economically depressed upstate New York town where she grew up. Armed with almost manic enthusiasm and a basic knowledge of urban planning, Lydia – who failed in her quest to be a big-time band promoter in the Big Apple - -quickly proposes to the town’s youngish mayor Jeff (an appealing Adam Pally) that every building downtown be painted cardinal red in an attempt to lure tourists.
Jeff is rather skeptical about this idea, but the town votes yes to the measure, he starts sleeping with Lydia (though it’s always pretty clear she’s merely a substitute for his ex-lover, her sister), and the renewal gets quickly underway. But, it quickly becomes clear the plan hasn’t been thought all the way through, as is evidenced when Li-Wen Chen (a very good Stephen Park), a savvy entrepreneur from NYC’s Chinatown, begins taking over the town’s vacant spaces to appeal primarily to visitors and Asian immigrants. (Where they’re coming from is never explained, however!)
As a result, people like long-time bakery owner Nancy (the invaluable Becky Ann Baker) and her autistic son Nat (Alex Hurt, struggling with an awkwardly-written role) sell their properties to Chen -- making Lydia and Jeff realize the human cost of the initiative – and Li-Chen and his son Jason (a fine Eugene Young) learn that intolerance and racism are alive and well in their new surroundings.
In its exploration of serious economic and class issue “Cardinal” is vaguely reminiscent of Lynn Nottage’s far superior “Sweat.” And while Pierce also creates an explosive catalytic action towards the end of the play (as did Nottage), it doesn’t feel overly organic nor does it register as valuable social commentary. Admittedly, the puzzle pieces all fit eventually, but your predominant reaction when “Cardinal” ends is likely to be “why did he bother?”
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Becky Ann Baker, Anna Chlumsky, Alex Hurt, Adam Pally, Stephen Park, Eugene Young
Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036