(l to r) Christine Bruno and Chris Henry Coffee in ‘Public Servant.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Public Servant, by Bekah Brunstetter (The Cake, TV’s “This Is Us”), is a homey comedy-drama — neither particularly comedic nor dramatic — set in small-town North Carolina (lots of James Taylor in Sam Crawford’s sound score). Now at Theatre Row, it’s produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, celebrating its 40th season as the only Off-Broadway theater organization dedicated to advancing artists and developing audiences of people with disabilities.
In Public Servant that would be Christine Bruno, who, like her character, Miriam, has cerebral palsy. Miriam’s physical problems, though—like walking up steps or putting on shoes—have little plot relevance, but rather are physical challenges she must bear in her quest to resolve a more pressing problem. A 40ish, New York English teacher in need of money, she’s returned to her home town to sell her deceased mother’s house, whose value has diminished because of its location in the path of a highway-building project. She hopes to persuade the county to buy it back.
Miriam seeks help from Ed Sink (Chris Henry Coffey), the harried but well-meaning county commissioner (like the playwright’s own dad), who is on the outs with his mentally unstable wife and is struggling to keep the peace with his feisty daughter, Hannah (Anna Lentz). She, a recent high school grad who’s “a little bit pregnant,” and aware of Miriam’s issues, is disappointed by what she sees as his political fecklessness.
Hannah and Miriam meet and bond. Hannah’s pregnancy is another emotional hurdle for Miriam to deal with, since she and her husband (not seen) have been trying without success, and at considerable expense, to have a baby. Hannah’s decision to have an abortion, however, which might only intensify the pathos of Miriam’s situation, has little emotional impact. Miriam supports her decision and even accompanies the girl for the procedure. North Carolina abortion politics were in the news this week, but the play steers clear of the weeds on the issue.
The characters, costumed by Courtney E. Butt to look as ordinary as possible, are all goodhearted exemplars of the play’s theme, that people should help other people, although that’s not always as easy as it sounds. When Hannah confronts Ed about his responsibilities as a public servant, he responds by noting his frustration at the restraints placed on him by bureaucratic and funding concerns.
Like so much else in this low-keyed play, which conveniently resolves everyone’s problems, tears may flow, but they do so with barely any sense of dramatic tension. Public Servant has its heart in the right place but lacks emotional punch, garners few laughs, and, when Miriam’s mission is sidetracked so the Ed-Hannah relationship can be explored, loses any sense of a focused dramatic purpose.
A sharper production might have helped. The actors all offer believable performances, but the overall tone of the 95-minute play is muted, with few moments of theatrical potency. Edward T. Morris’s oddly conceived set, with its multiple scene changes required by the frequent location shifts, exacerbates director Geordie Broadwater’s listless pacing.
Seeking, perhaps, to evince the town’s rural quality, he provides a pair of two overhead panels looking like elongated, corrugated, steel shutters on which are painted a landscape of trees and sky. On the stage proper, lit by Alejandro Fajardo, is a faux-grass floor with a V-shaped, white, picket fence arrangement, sections of which, like Ed’s office, swing on and off as needed. The awkward effect makes it seem that all the action, even when in a kitchen, takes place on someone’s lawn.
Billed as the second installment in a trilogy, Public Servant follows The Cake, also set in North Carolina. In that play, Brunstetter had the advantage of a provocative subject (a baker’s refusal to bake a cake for a lesbian marriage), which overcame her dramatic shortfalls. Public Servant lacks the former but retains the latter. Let’s hope that the playwright’s final visit to North Carolina provides something both provocative and dramatically fulfilling.
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 29
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.