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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 30, 2018

Anna Chlumsky and Adam Pally
Photo by Joan Marcus

Playwright Greg Pierce's Cardinal, which opened tonight at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater, is a sketchbook of a play ostensibly about the impact of urban renewal, population shifts, and the infusion of newcomers on a dying, formerly industrial small city in upstate New York. Mostly, however, it is about quirky characters having quirky interactions with one another, and not always in service to the threadbare plot.

The play's title refers not to the Catholic Church, nor to the baseball team or the bird. Instead it is reference to a particular shade of red that the city's returning prodigal daughter wants to use as a means of redeeming herself after a long-ago act of vandalism. That would be Lydia (Anna Chlumsky), whom we first meet in the office of the city's newly elected mayor, Jeff (Adam Pally). Lydia has come back (fled?) to her hometown after living for a time in Brooklyn, where she was involved in a "toxic relationship with a guy named Chad I met in Debtors Anonymous." (Make of that what you will; you'll get no further explanation.)

Lydia is on a mission to save the city after its primary industry, an axle-manufacturing factory, shut down. She has come to Jeff's office armed with confidence, knowledge garnered from her college studies in urban planning, and a grand idea: they need to paint the downtown area (all six blocks of it) a deep cardinal red. That will surely bring the tourists in, she assures the befuddled Jeff, chirpily adding the clincher that "Archer Paints will cut us a deal if we buy fourteen thousand gallons,"

Jeff, who not so coincidentally used to date Lydia's sister, finds the exuberant Lydia and her idea attractive enough so that he is willing to arrange for a public meeting about the proposal at the high school gymatorium. Before you can blink twice, Lydia has successfully made her pitch, pausing just long enough to quickly apologize for causing a citywide blackout when she was in high school. Then, thanks to Amith Chandrashaker's lighting design, every exterior surface turns red.

For the rest of the 90-minute play, we learn about the mix of benefits and consequences that are the result of the paint job. Visitors do pour in, many of them courtesy of a tour bus run by Li-Wei Chen (Stephen Park), an entrepreneur who sees an opportunity for profit-making. Business does pick up for the local shops, but some of the residents are becoming uneasy about the sudden influx of strangers, many of whom are Asian Americans or immigrants. For instance, Nancy (Becky Ann Baker), the longtime owner of Bread and Buttons Bakery, decides to sell her shop and leave the area with her cognitively and emotionally impaired son Nat (Alex Hurt) when she can no longer recognize the community that had been her home for so many years.

In a plot summary, Cardinal sounds like a fable or cautionary tale. And it is that, up to a point. But Greg Pierce, the playwright, has loaded the work with a dizzying array of plot turns. These play out in short scenes that rearrange the characters into as many permutations as possible. There are scenes of a romantic nature between Lydia and Jeff, in which we also learn about Jeff's history of emotional problems and use of antianxiety medication. There are deal-making scenes between Lydia and Li-Wei Chen, which include an effort by the businessman to arrange a marriage between his son Jason (Eugene Young) and Lydia. There is a scene that couples a racist threat with a separate and unrelated act of violence between Jason and Nat. There's even a scene of awkward peacemaking between Nancy and Li-Wei Chen. The mind boggles as the carousel keeps turning.

Mr. Pierce assuredly has a way with words and an ear for dialog that is intriguingly idiosyncratic. He also has garnered a very positive reputation for his earlier works, like Slowgirl and his collaborations with composer John Kander on the musicals The Landing and Kid Victory. But despite the best efforts of the committed and talented cast, director Kate Whoriskey's steadying hand, and Derek McLane's cleverly designed set that allows for near-instantaneous scene changes, Cardinal feels like it was rushed into production far too soon.

Through February 25
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
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