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A CurtainUp Review

"I wanted to ask, 'What kind of change is good for a town. How much change? What are the changing faces of America? How do we look out for ourselves and how do we empathize with others?' And in this divisive time now, to be one country. What does it mean to have a country, and all belong to the same place?"
— Playwright Greg Pierce explaining his inspiration for Cardinal in a 12/14 Playbill feature By Adam Hetrick
Anna Chlumsky (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Greg Pierce follows up his well received Slow Girl and Kid Victory by joining Lynn Nottage and Dominique Morisseau (The Pulitzer Prize winning Sweat and Skeleton Crew) to tackle the problems facing the people in once prosperous American industrial cities.

With Cardinal, now in its world premiere at 2nd Stage, Pierce has taken a complex path to dramatize his version of this important subject. He's opted for a multi-layered satire with difficult to mesh plot and style detours. Much of this juggling of multiple plot elements is amusing and clever but it's a hard to bring off juggling act that needed to be more carefully thought through. And as <Cardinal does end up being overly ambitious, so is the plan of Lydia Lensky (a maniacally intense Anna Chlumsky) to make the failing upstate New York town in which she grew up great again.

The problem is that Lydia has lived in Brooklyn for years the last 15 years, not the former axel manufacturing town of Brindle, and her private and professional life has also been on a downward path. Heavily in debt, in a toxic relationship and dead end career as a band manager (vague references to these failures, her parents' status in the town, are the first of many Swiss cheese-like holes throughout this overstuffed with issues script). At any rate, Lydia now sees a chance to use her Oberlin College studies in urban renewal to renew herself and her hometown.

Lydia's plan: To paint the town red in order to turn it into an economy stimulating tourist attraction as it did for a blue city in Morocco and a yellow one in Mexico. But the passing years and Lydia's tendency to hastily jump into new projects, make her unable realize that what works for one group of people or place might not work in the town to which she's not exactly a homecoming queen

Still with Chlumsky playing this over-confident liberal with over-the-top brashness, Lydia manages to win over the town's mayor Jeff Torm (Adam Pally) and a vote of confidence from the townspeople. And so the town actually turns red. The shade of the paint used is cardinal, so in case you expected a story about a high level priest or a red-breasted bird, that explains the title. Unfortunately, the execution of Lydia's plan takes us in too many directions (including bed scenes for Lydia and Jeff, an act of violence and the addition of a Chinese-American sightseeing bus tour company) that should but don't connect organically.

Besides veering from a realistic problem play into improbable fantasy territory, the interaction between the characters see-saws between sad, confrontational and sit-com-y humor (which both Chlumsky and Pally have mined successfully in shows like Girls and Happy Endings). While the thirteen scenes whiz us through the dizzying ripple effects of the town painting scheme, the Mayor's lingering emotional dysfunction as a result of being dumped by Lydia's sister are given a lot of time, but true to those Swiss cheese-ish plot holes, there isn't a clue as to what kind of job kept him in Brindle before his uncharacteristic run for Mayor.

The scenes featuring a mother and her autistic son (Becky Ann Baker and Alex Hurt as Nancy and Nat Prenchel) and two Brindle outsiders, the Chinese-American Chens (Stephen Park as Li-wei Chen and Eugene Young as his son Jason Chen) seem more suited to the short story genre (shades of Pierce's collaboration with composer John Kander, The Landing like separate short stories.

Besides failing to make for a comfortably organic whole, these detours, especially senior Chen's arrival in the now red American city, overstuff the central issue of how to deal with the problem of economically devastated American cities with takes on racial prejudice and political power struggle between America and China.

Kate Whoriskey, who steered the Pulitzer Prize winning both off and on Broadway does her best to help the six-member cast navigate all these sub-plots believably and without confusing and frustrating the audience. Derek McLane's set is rather grim looking but effectively takes us to the various locations in Brindle as well as the Chen's Chinatown office. Thanks to Amith Chandrashaker's lighting design, we actually see the town turn red.every exterior surface turns red. Jennifer Moeller's costumes help to define each character's persona.

But at the end of its fast-paced and provocative 90 minutes Cardinal is a mixed bag— one of those frustrating plays that coulda-shoulda-been-better.

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Cardinal by Greg Pierce
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Cast: Ann Baker (Nancy Prenchel), Anna Chlumsky (Lydia Lensky), Alex Hurt (Nat Prenchel), Adam Pally (Jeff Torm), Stephen Park (Li-wei Chen), Eugene Young(Jason Chen).
Scenic design by Derek McLane
Costume design by Jennifer Moeller
Lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker
Sound design by Leah Gelpe
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer Stage Manager: Donald Fried
Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes
Tony Kiser Theater, Second Stage 305 West 43rd 212-246-4422
From 1/09/18; opening 1/30/18; closing 2/25/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/29 press preview

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