Review: Anna Chlumsky and Adam Pally Paint the Town Red in ‘Cardinal’

NEW YORK — Great ideas are not always good ones, as the characters in Greg Pierce’s new play, “Cardinal,” learn.

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Review: Anna Chlumsky and Adam Pally Paint the Town Red in ‘Cardinal’
, New York Times

NEW YORK — Great ideas are not always good ones, as the characters in Greg Pierce’s new play, “Cardinal,” learn.

The great idea in this case is Lydia’s. A sparkler of a young woman who has been burned a few times, Lydia (Anna Chlumsky) returns from a life in Brooklyn, New York, to her depressed Rust Belt hometown with dreams of saving it from further disintegration. Already the population has declined by 50 percent since her school days there.

Her plan, which she must first sell to the mayor, Jeff Torm, is to paint six blocks of Main Street, from Plum to Swan, cardinal red. What a great tourist attraction it will be, she explains at a town-hall meeting in the high school gymnatorium: Just like in Chefchaouen, Morocco, the blue city, or Izamal, Mexico, the yellow one, tourists will soon arrive by the busload.

Perhaps you will buy this premise, as Jeff (Adam Pally) and the voters provisionally do. Perhaps you won’t care whether you buy it or not, because the play, which opened Wednesday at Second Stage Theater in New York, at first seems to be heading in a pleasant rom-com direction. Tirelessly upbeat Lydia and hapless Jeff, as depressed as his town, are an opposites-attract couple whose feints and parries seem to come with a laugh track. Chlumsky, of “Veep,” and Pally, of “Happy Endings” and “The Mindy Project,” both know how to play that game.

But eventually Lydia’s plan goes awry, as does every alternative (a New Age hospital?) she improvises to save it. Same with “Cardinal.” It so outstrips its gears — trying almost anything to keep the story heading toward the author’s themes — that you may experience severe bumps if you stick around for the whole ride.

This is surprising, coming from Pierce. His earlier plays, including his 2012 debut, “Slowgirl,” reflect the qualities — patience with plot, modesty with character — that make him a fine short story writer. Working of late with composer John Kander, he has devised the book and lyrics for musicals, like “Kid Victory,” that find grave darkness in the frozen heart of small town America.

By comparison, the disposition of “Cardinal” is antic, even before it gets out of hand. It’s an amusing twist that Lydia, who means to be a do-gooder, is really a classic carpetbagger, tone deaf to the needs of the town she once did everything she could to escape. (She thanks the struggling voters for listening to her pitch by giving them complimentary copies of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.”) But by the time the plot involves her with a Chinese-American entrepreneur, who swoops in with tour buses and dumpling shops to reap the rewards Lydia hoped would accrue to the town, Pierce’s concerns have twisted hers into an incomprehensible Möbius strip.

Jeff, too, is dragged down that path, transforming from a sweet underachiever (who once had scurvy) to a vengeful husk — and then back again. The same thing happens to the characters in both subplots. In the one involving the entrepreneur (Stephen Park) and his son (Eugene Young), a benignly comic caricature veers close to bad-guy Orientalism before veering back for a sentimental ending. And in the one involving a bakery owner (Becky Ann Baker) and her autistic son (Alex Hurt), traits and actions fail to jibe, especially as those actions take a hard right turn toward another genre entirely.

The tonal lurching makes “Cardinal” feel whimsical and even a bit aleatory, like a John Cage sonata. Yet I have to believe that a playwright as sophisticated as Pierce has made these baffling, disruptive choices meaningfully. Though the bakery is cutely called Bread & Buttons, and sells crocheted monkeys and mittens along with the scones, he is not just satirizing small town America, with its hopeless reinvention schemes and hapless part-time politicians. He’s after something larger about the unintended consequences of capitalism on both individuals and societies: meant to be a cure-all, it is too often a comeuppance.

So perhaps we should see “Cardinal” not as a gritty postindustrial drama, like Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” but as a fable; that would certainly explain the way the characters, and not just the town, have been painted in such bright, primary colors. “Cardinal” even has a moral, delivered by Jeff, who is speaking of romance but might as well mean governance: “If you don’t know about something, maybe you shouldn’t mess with it.”

Unfortunately, the production, directed by Kate Whoriskey (who also directed “Sweat”) on a vague, dour set by Derek McLane, does nothing to advance that reading, nor can it smooth the shift in tone that occurs in the last third of the 90-minute play. And though the story wraps up with a pair of lovely scenes that allow the leading actors, especially Baker, to do their best work, “Cardinal” never achieves the gravity of its worthy aims. Great ideas are not always good ones.

Production Notes:


Tickets: Through Feb. 25 at the Tony Kiser Theater, Manhattan; 212-246-4422, 2st.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

Credits: Written by Greg Pierce; directed by Kate Whoriskey; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Jennifer Moeller; lighting by Amith Chandrashaker; sound by Leah Gelpe; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Donald Fried; stage manager, Alexandra Hall; production manager, Bethany Weinstein Stewert; general manager, Seth Shepsle. Presented by Second Stage Theater, Carole Rothman, artistic director, Casey Reitz, executive director, Christopher Burney, artistic producer.

Cast: Becky Ann Baker (Nancy Prenchel), Anna Chlumsky (Lydia Lensky), Alex Hurt (Nat Prenchel), Adam Pally (Jeff Torm), Stephen Park (Li-Wei Chen) and Eugene Young (Jason Chen).

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