BWW REVIEW: 'THE POWER OF DUFF' CASTS ITS SPELL OVER BOSTON
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; project design, Aaron Rhyne; production stage manager, Lori Ann Zepp; stage manager, Candice D. Mongellow
Cast in Order of Appearance:
Charles Duff, David Wilson Barnes; Sue Raspell, Jennifer Westfeldt; John Ebbs, Brendan Griffin; Ron Kirkpatrick and others, Joe Paulik; Scott Zoellner, Ben Cole; Lisa Duff, Amy Pietz; Joseph Andango, Russell G. Jones; Ricky Duff, Noah Galvin
Performances and Tickets:
Now through November 9, Huntington Theatre Company, Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts; tickets start at $25 and are available at the Box Office by calling 617-266-0800 or online at www.huntingtontheatre.org.
THE POWER OF DUFF, an amusing and at times deeply moving new play by prolific New York writer Stephen Belber, could easily be subtitled, "The Accidental Theist." Now in its final weekend at the Boston Center for the Arts courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company, DUFF brings burnt out television news anchor Charles Duff (an engagingly understated David Wilson Barnes) face to face with his own redemption when he suddenly starts to pray at the end of each newscast.
Not a particularly devout or even spiritual man, Duff nonetheless turns to spontaneous acts of faith when the death of his father magnifies his already deep sense of loneliness. Divorced, estranged from his teenaged son, weary of the news he has to report, and no longer able to find pleasure in sexual conquests that were at one time badges of his status and manhood, Duff unintentionally begins working miracles from his nightly 11 o'clock pulpit. He enlists his Rochester, NY viewing public to pray for a kidnapped young girl, and lo and behold she is returned to her family unharmed. He turns his powers next to an indigent African immigrant in need of medical treatment, and bam, the community raises more than enough money for his care.
Viewer response to Duff's Messiah-like transformation is so overwhelmingly positive that his once outraged manager Scott Zoellner (a deliciously opportunistic Ben Cole) now insists that Duff continue to pray in order to keep the ratings at record levels. Pressure to perform bigger and better miracles mounts, and soon Duff is overwhelmed by not only the public demand but also the unforeseeable repercussions. He learns that no outcome occurs in a vacuum. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So what began as an innocent attempt to find meaning in human connection soon becomes a media circus spinning out of control.
The vast schism between his public triumphs and his private failures also become more apparent to Duff as he attempts to re-establish contact with his ex-wife Lisa (a terrifically wounded yet still somehow hopeful Amy Pietz) and his son Ricky (an intensely angry yet vulnerable Noah Galvin). As the regret of his distant relationship with his own father is now mirrored in the hurt and untrusting eyes of his son, Duff starts to realize that spiritual healing begins at home. Awkwardly, tentatively, and not without stumbles, he shifts his focus from his professional life to his personal one. In the end perhaps the most important prayer is the silent one shared between father and son.
David Wilson Barnes is quietly imposing as the troubled Duff. With an unassuming but nonetheless winning air, he reveals the anguish, hope and even befuddlement of a man who has had unexpected power thrust upon him. Pietz and Galvin are equally moving and totally believable as loving family members cast aside by Duff's ego, ambition, indifference, and inability to connect. Together these three make up the very strong emotional core of the story.
Brendan Griffin as spaced-out sportscaster John Ebbs gives a delightfully dimwitted portrayal until later circumstances reveal there's more depth to him than initially perceived. What starts out as a stock comic caricature performance evolves into something surprisingly heartfelT. Russell G. Jones as the HIV-positive Joseph Andango balances a wryly morbid humor with a folksy philosophical nature, and Joe Paulik as Channel 10 man on the street Ron Kirkpatrick delivers a pitch-perfect turn as an affable news reporter whose ability to look good on camera while reading from a teleprompter is clearly his greatest asset.
Only the talented Jennifer Westfeldt as Duff's incredulous co-anchor Sue Raspell seems wasted here, trapped in an unfulfilling marriage with a man who is either unwilling or unable to help shoulder some of the burden of raising their autistic son. Exhausted and fresh out of miracles, she is the only person unable to see any hope in Duff's spiritual resurrection. A gifted and quirky comedienne, Westfeldt is shoehorned into a straight role that doesn't allow her to fully shine.
Once again a crack Huntington Theatre Company design team creates a physical world that embodies the location and the spirit of the play beautifully. Numerous large and not-so-large projection screens double as newsroom and apartment windows overlooking the Rochester skyline and television monitors that air the live feeds of news from the streets. Hilarious first-person interviews feature some of Boston's most recognizable actors making cameo appearances as victims and eye-witnesses.
THE POWER OF DUFF charms rather than clobbers its audience with its message, yet the final quiet sequence between estranged father and son is devastating in its simplicity. This is a play whose power creeps slowly into one's consciousness and then lingers long after the experience in the theater is over. The genuine effort of one imperfect man trying to save himself by saving his only son is so much more potent than any ballyhooed miracle. No film at 11, folks. Good night and good luck.
PHOTOS BY T. Charles Erickson: David Wilson Barnes as Charles Duff and Jennifer Westfeldt as Sue Raspell; David Wilson Barnes; David Wilson Barnes, Amy Pietz as Lisa Duff and Noah Galvin as Ricky Duff; David Wilson Barnes and Brendan Griffin as John Ebbs; Russell G. Jones as Joseph Andango and David Wilson Barnes; Noah Galvin and David Wilson Barnes