Many of us have experience working with someone who’s a big picture dreamer. Unchecked by a healthy skeptic — much less an opponent with a better idea — they good-naturedly lead their team down a path to The Emoji Movie or Pets.com. Greg Pierce starts out telling one such story in Cardinal in which Lydia Lensky returns to her hometown with the wild idea of literally painting it red. With tremendous enthusiasm and few facts, she persuades the locals that this gimmick will attract tourism and new business.
It’s clear from the moments that click in this production that if Mr. Pierce had focused on developing this plot line and fully explored the themes of unintended consequences and shifting alliances, Cardinal might resonate. Towns around America are going through similar changes and struggling to find solutions. Instead of trusting there was enough to say on this important topic, the playwright tosses in sexual obsession, cultural bias, the working poor, and addiction. The final concoction is as tasty as the dish cooked up by Rachel Green in “The One Where Ross Got High.” (For non friends of Friends, the recipes for shepherds pie and trifle had stuck together.)
I can see how Lydia’s well-meaning messiness might be attractive to Anna Chlumsky, fresh off yet another Screen Actors Guild win for VEEP. The actress certainly pours energy into her attempt to create an emotional arc for a character that moves from A to B and then drifts back to A. It is helpful that her primary foil is brought to life by Adam Pally who is known for mining comedy gold. Sadly Pally’s timing cannot save their weightier exchanges from tumbling headlong into melodrama. Scenes between Becky Ann Baker and Alex Hurt as a small business owner and her mentally challenged son ring truer, but all too soon their storyline also hits a wall. Rounding out the characters, a Chinese businessman and his son portrayed by Stephen Park and Eugene Young are mostly offensive.
The behind the scenes team seems to have trouble keeping up with the scattered emotional beats and plot turns. Director Kate Whoriskey — who helped bring the astoundingly powerful Sweat to life — establishes a pattern of using the town’s worker-bees to ease scene transitions only to be confronted with sections where this ploy doesn’t fit the action. Derek McLane’s brick set may make location changes easier, but it too doesn’t consistently work to give us the proper sense of place. Some of the sound and light elements are cheesy. This may be intentional but in that case the artistic commitment isn’t strong enough.
Like many members of my profession, I believe it’s essential to fairly review those works that are not my cup of tea. However, there are some offerings that must be called out for simply “not working.” I attended Cardinal with five friends all of whom had a negative experience. (They tell me it’s the first time in 25 years they’ve had the same reaction to a night at the theater.) What did the good folks at 2nd Stage read that was lost along the way? Perhaps the creative team behind this world premiere was carried away by its own Lydia Lensky when it added the commissioned work to the season. Let me know what you think if you decide to purchase a ticket at https://2st.com/shows/current-production/cardinal.