Anna Chlumsky and Adam Pally in ‘Cardinal’ at Second Stage Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Cardinal, a new play by Greg Pierce (Kid Victory) is New York theatre’s latest attempt at tackling Rust Belt disintegration and renewal—this time seen through the red-hued lens of a small town in upstate New York. Lynn Nottage’s Sweat won the Pulitzer Prize last year for depicting the brutal fall-out from the downsizing of a steel factory. Pierce’s play, a hodgepodge of thuddy one-liners, high-pitched rants, and stiff physical comedy, picks up—in some sense—where that play finishes, unfortunately with less success.
Lydia (Anna Chlumsky) has returned from New York City to her hometown to reconnect with her sister’s ex-boyfriend, Jeff (Adam Pally), who is now mayor, in an attempt to rescue it from despair. The local axel factory (they made other parts, too, as we repeatedly hear) has since closed, and the town is slowly depleting like a clogged drain. Lydia’s brilliant idea is to paint the town red as an ultimate marketing gimmick to put the destination back on the map, drive tourism and ultimately support urban renewal.
She champions the ordinance’s passage, much to the dismay of local bakery owner Nancy (Becky Ann Baker), who oversees her deceased husband’s shop with her adult son Nat (Alex Hurt), described by the playwright as “mildly autistic or maybe he just has trouble relating to others,” though the performance leads toward the former. But things quickly go awry as a Chinese investor, Li-Wei Chen (Stephen Park) and his protégé son Jason (Eugene Young) territorially take over the town with historically incorrect bus tours and competing dumpling shops.
Pierce’s script, commissioned by Second Stage Theatre and directed by Kate Whoriskey (who not so ironically also helmed Sweat) struggles to find its voice, but its themes resonate as the battle over industrialization, coal mining, and other income generators are as much a part of our political landscape as they were decades ago. Lydia references towns like Toronto (thanks to immigrants) and Cleveland (thanks to the Cleveland Clinic) that have regenerated themselves, but even she begins to question painting the town red when Li-Wei’s growth strategies appear to be more focused on capitalism than human interest.
If you can’t beat them, join them. Lydia attempts to purchase the old factory to anchor the town and restore it into a teaching hospital of Eastern medicine—a strategy that she hopes will create synergy among the town’s new residents and jobs for those who have remained.
Throw into the mix Jeff’s unstable mental state, including clinical depression and a romantic obsession over Lydia’s sister; an inevitable affair between Lydia and Jeff (which results in a lot of arguing in underwear); and an unbelievable budding romance between Lydia and Jason, who’d rather drive across country and teach English than take over his father’s empire, and you have an urban development plan (and script) in serious need of an overhaul.
The jarring tone leans heavily on one-liners, which Chlumsky adeptly handles (not unlike her recurring role on Veep as chief of staff to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s foul-mouthed political leader). She’s literally at sea, with her two leading men delivering less-than-buoyant performances in this fictional waterside town. Appearing in supporting but fundamental roles that represent the town of the past, Baker and Hurt, as mother and son, are the most effective. Their endearing, honest and affectionate relationship symbolizes a town worth fighting for, regardless of what color its streets are painted.
Second Stage Theatre
305 West 43rd Street
Through February 25, 2018