Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

The Power of Duff

Also see Nancy's reviews of Splendor and Water by the Spoonful

The theme of connection is the tie that binds Boston theater companies in many of the offerings of this rich, young season. The latest entry is the New England premiere of Stephen Belber's The Power of Duff by the Huntington Theatre Company, under the direction of Artistic Director Peter DuBois at the Boston Center for the Arts. When a burnt out, disconnected local news anchor concludes his broadcast by praying on the air, he becomes a catalyst for change in his community and in his own life, but can it bring him any closer to resolving his existential malaise?

David Wilson Barnes

Charlie Duff (David Wilson Barnes) is sleepwalking through his unsatisfactory life when he gets a wake-up call informing him of his father's death in a distant city. When he returns to work after attending the funeral, you can virtually see the wheels turning in his head as he prepares to shift gears and take a bold, unlikely action. Charlie's colleagues on the anchor desk, uptight Sue Raspell (Jennifer Westfeldt) and jocular sports guy John Ebbs (Brendan Griffin), are stunned when he folds his hands, closes his eyes and sincerely delivers his impromptu prayer. Never mind that it is highly inappropriate for a journalist on a news show to do this, but the whole religion thing is not in Charlie's make-up. Repercussions are immediate from his boss Scott (Ben Cole), the viewers, and his ex-wife Lisa (Amy Pietz) and teenage son Ricky (Noah Galvin).

The playwright thought it would be interesting to use a spiritually ambivalent character to explore what might happen if he became a spiritual leader in the eyes of his public, even as his transformation is in flux. Charlie's words inspire his audience to do good and to perform random acts of kindness, and at times they have an uncanny or seemingly miraculous ability to effect change in people's lives, but he believes more in his growing personal power to connect people than in the vagaries of prayer. The irony of his situation is that the very thing he seeks—a way to meaningfully reconnect with Lisa and Ricky—is threatened by his newfound popularity and increased celebrity.

Knowing Charlie's history as they do, Lisa and Ricky doubt his motives, but we are in limbo because Belber doesn't firmly establish his motivation and even Charlie asks aloud, "What the fuck am I doing?" He has no answers, allowing himself to be carried along on the wave of public approval, and stops as suddenly as he starts. The playwright raises the question of whether he's doing it to puff himself up, as his son and ex suspect, or if he honestly believes he can make a difference as a purveyor of positive thinking. To the degree that he helps an AIDS patient (Russell G. Jones) acquire funds for treatment and lifts the spirits of his depressed co-worker, there are examples of the latter, but Charlie could just as easily be seen as a low-key snake oil salesman.

When Charlie's actions become part of the station's news coverage (Joe Paulik is a hoot as local reporter Ron Kirkpatrick and others), the ensuing debate over ratings versus journalistic integrity is good drama, but greater focus on that controversy would be a good thing. Scott's arc has him favoring the former a little too quickly, while Sue stands firmly in the camp of integrity, until she doesn't. Cole is the epitome of the numbers-crunching producer with dollar signs in his eyes, and Westfeldt has a professional on-air demeanor with a hint of Mary Richards' insecurity when the camera is off. Griffin does a nice turnaround from the typical goofy sports guy when his character reveals his mental health issues. Pietz is every bit the skeptical ex, while also showing the remnants of caring feelings for her former husband. Galvin impresses as the hoodie-wearing, sulky teen who has not forgiven his father for his past transgressions. He doesn't have much stage time, but Jones' portrayal of the stranger who genuinely touches Duff has a lot of heart.

Barnes captures the everyman nature of Charlie Duff, getting along well with his co-workers, going with the flow and maintaining an even keel. He plays the part efficiently with few grand strokes, conveying Charlie's persona by holding back and reacting to circumstances more than by acting out. He goes from lost soul to national phenomenon, but he remains small even as his on-screen face is larger than life.

Scenic Designer David Rockwell and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne see to it that we are inundated with images of Charlie and other news events on multiple screens upstage behind the anchor desk, providing an aura of authenticity to the play. Small set pieces slide on and off stage to suggest Duff's apartment, his office, a hospital room, etc., and Rui Rita's lighting design makes them stand out. Costume Design is by Bobby Frederick Tilley II and Sound Design is by M.L. Dogg.

DuBois and his designers provide a snappy pace and stylish aesthetic for The Power of Duff, and the actors stay in sync with the ups and downs of their characters. Belber's thesis and framework are worthy, but there are too many threads to unravel, diluting the main storyline. When all is said and done, the eye candy of the shiny visual effects offers empty calories that left me hungry for something more substantial to chew on.

The Power of Duff, performances through November 9 by Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or Written by Stephen Belber, Directed by Peter DuBois; Scenic Design, David Rockwell; Costume Design, Bobby Frederick Tilley II; Lighting Design, Rui Rita; Sound Design, M.L. Dogg; Projection Design, Aaron Rhyne; Production Stage Manager, Lori Ann Zepp; Stage Manager, Candice D. Mongellow

Cast (in order of appearance): David Wilson Barnes, Jennifer Westfeldt, Brendan Griffin, Joe Paulik, Ben Cole, Amy Pietz, Russell G. Jones, Noah Galvin

Photo: T Charles Erickson

- Nancy Grossman

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