BWW Review: Anna Chlumsky Paints The Town Red in Greg Pierce's CARDINAL
In last season's GROUNDHOG DAY, the exceedingly charismatic Andy Karl was given the unenviable task of playing out a romantic comedy as a thoroughly despicable character. Now, in Greg Pierce's Cardinal at Second Stage, Anna Chlumsky's perfectly fine performance is similarly weighed down.
The two opening scenes set us up for that traditional romantic friction that occurs when a somewhat oddball, but attractively imaginative and driven woman teams with an emotionally repressed guy who plays his life safely.
Lydia (Chlumsky) returns to her upstate New York hometown after burning out from her Brooklyn hipster lifestyle of tending bars and managing local bands. Jeff (Adam Pally), the young mayor of the town, had his heart broken when Lydia's sister broke up with him.
The economy has been on an extended downslide and Jeff, while not wanting to turn his back on local businesses, is considering plans to offer tax incentives for new business in order to develop the waterfront area.
But Lydia has something more dramatic in mind. Citing the tourism success of Chefchaoen, Morocco, a town whose streets and buildings are all painted blue, and Izamal, Mexico, which is bathed in yellow, she suggests that a six-block downtown radius be painted all red.
Partially out of desperation and partially out of an attraction for her, Jeff arranges for Lydia to present her idea at a town meeting, although many of the residents are still angry at her for an act of vandalism she committed as a teenager - in protest against a restaurant's racist hiring policies - that left the town without electricity for seven hours.
But Lydia is a pursuasive speaker and the voters agree to "paint the town red." Well, paint the town cardinal, to be specific. And up to this point, Cardinal is a funny, weird little play with a lot of promise.
But then the scene switches to a bakery café owned by Nancy (wonderfully sympathetic Becky Ann Baker), who operates the business with her developmentally disabled son Nat (Alex Hurt). Nancy is saddened to think that the homey outside appearance of her café, that she carefully cultivated with her late husband, will now be red-washed, especially when Lydia points out that the quaint handmade ornamental sign her husband crafted - which is regarded as a local landmark - can no longer hang outside unless it's painted cardinal red.
Jeff tries to be diplomatic, but Lydia is downright bullying, demanding that the heartbroken woman has no choice in the matter. From that moment on, although Pierce continues to provide clever lines that Chlumsky handles with finesse, Lydia just isn't likeable anymore and the romantic comedy that develops between her and Jeff, who turns out to be no prize himself, is no longer funny.
New complications arise from New York's Chinatown, where an enterprising businessman Li-Wei (Stephen Park) and his son Jason (Eugene Young) starts sending tour busses through the town, with guides offering fictionalized histories to make the red district seem more interesting. Soon there's a Chinese market and competing dumpling houses in town as businesses owned by locals are closing up.
While Jeff tries to protect the town's historic character, Lydia sides with the entrepreneurs who are making money and causally uses the word rape to describe what she thinks Jeff is doing to her constituents. When the playwright throws in something horrible to happen to one the play's most sympathetic characters, Cardinal turns downright repulsive.
Still, director Kate Whoriskey turns in a fine, slick production that, despite the material, maintains energy, thanks to the strong work by the company. There is actually a good, entertaining play within Cardinal, dealing with the always-controversial issue of enhancing a community's economy at the expense of preserving its history; a topic you can perhaps discuss while having a post-theatre meal at one of 42nd Street's chain restaurants that used to be a Broadway theatre.