by Michael Bracken
It’s named Cardinal after the bird, not a Pope wannabe. Or maybe it’s both. It’s the color that’s important, and human cardinals have been known to don vestments as bright and red as what comes to the bird naturally.
Red reigns in Cardinal, Greg Pierce’s tepid drama at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater. A marketing stunt goes sour, and the residents of a small city realize how much in the red a red downtown will leave their quality of life.
It all begins with Lydia Lensky (Anna Chlumsky), a one-time resident, pitching an idea to the mayor. Paint all of downtown red. Other cities have painted themselves different colors, only to see a sharp rise in tourism. Lydia’s fiercely passionate about her idea; she says several times she’s only doing it for the city she loves. Mayor Jeff Torm (Adam Palley) is behind the paint project but cynical about Lydia’s seeming lack of motives. Her altruism is ultimately unmasked when we learn she has bought a factory she wants to turn into a hospital as the anchor of the new development.
Important factoid: Jeff is sleeping with Lydia. Equally important factoid: Lydia’s sister dumped Jeff several years ago, and he’s never quite gotten over it.
The project progresses. After initial antipathy toward them, Lydia joins forces with an Asian entrepreneur, Li-Wei Chen (a high-energy Stephen Park), and his son, Jason (an appealing Eugene Young).
Old time residents resist the proposed changes. Nancy Prenchel (Becky Ann Baker) runs a bakery in the area slated to be painted. She doesn’t want the sign her late husband made painted over. And she doesn’t want to replace it either. She opts to leave town, with her mentally challenged son, Nat (Alex Hurt).
Meanwhile Mayor Torm’s belief in the project cools, as does his romance with Lydia. Lydia spends more time with Chen Junior. Chen senior thinks Lydia and his son would make a great couple.
Kate Whoriskey directs. She needs to pull in her leading lady. Chlumsky’s enthusiasm is charming at first, but a little bit of cock-eyed optimism goes a long way. Her earnest appeals become tired and tiring. Even sober Jeff resorts to jumping up and down at one point, like a disgruntled five-year-old. Physicality is great, but not when it pulls actors out of character.
The play itself is uncertain. It doesn’t seem to know where it’s headed, so it’s not headed anywhere. It needs pruning and a clearer point of view. It raises questions about topics like values, but it doesn’t really have a take on them. It certainly doesn’t go very deep in exploring this or any other theme.
Baker as Nancy is a study in restraint. Nancy’s goals are modest. She’s not looking to set the world on fire. She just wants to be able to live in peace with her son, whose symptoms suggest some form of autism. Hurt is a convincing Nat. Tentative but combustible, he projects a hint of menace that eventually takes center stage.
Park and Young complement each other nicely as a father and son team. Mayor Torm, played by Palley with understated determination, seems to grow more than any other character. He finally works through his obsession with Lydia’s sister, and he becomes more comfortable with himself, even as the red paint initiative grows more and more controversial.
Derek McLane’s scenic design is simple and effective. Exposed white brick features prominently across the breadth of the stage, while simple furniture, which gets changed for each scene, tells us where we are. Amith Chandrashaker’s supple lighting goes from generic to intimate effortlessly.
Cardinal feels static. There’s more than enough motion but not much movement.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Through February 25th Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theater’s Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street). https://2st.com/ Ninety minutes with no intermission.