Seeing Red: Why “Cardinal” Is Not a Very Good Play

When a play is poor-to-middling, directors and casts can ratchet things up. Not here.

Anna Chlumsky, Adam Pally in "Cardinal." Photo: Joan Marcus.

Let’s agree that no one sits down to write a bad play. That would include Greg Pierce, whose Cardinal is currently taking up valuable space at Second Stage Theater. According to his program bio, Pierce — who co-wrote the musicals The Landing and Kid Victory with John Kander — is from Shelburne, VT (population 7000+), where the major attraction is the Shelburne Museum. This is information that may go some way towards explaining why Pierce wanted to produce Cardinal. He appears to be following the time-honored authors’ encouragement to write about what you know. It looks as if he knows and loves Shelburne, and he sets his 90-minute work in “various locations around a small town in upstate Vermont.” (Other scenes take place in NYC’s Chinatown, about which more later.)

Pierce is concerned about Shelburne’s future. But Cardinal demonstrates, if nothing else, that committing to subject matter close to a dramatist’s heart doesn’t add up to much if the resulting script lacks the pith, heft and grace to fulfill its intentions. Which Cardinal does. Pierce has come up with plucky Lydia Lensky (Anna Chlumsky), who’s returned to her VT hometown — which isn’t called Shelburne, but surely could be — after spending post-graduate time in Brooklyn managing rock groups, either unsuccessfully or not with any kind of dedication.

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Despite repeatedly referring to the town locals as “douchebags,” Lydia is determined to revitalize the burg. She wants to literally paint the town red. She’s convinced that were it covered in a shade called “cardinal,” it would instantly become a tourist destination.

To get her way, Lydia entices the town’s youngish mayor, Jeff Torm (Adam Pally) to her side. Poor guy is a nervous wreck — he was dumped years earlier by Lydia’s sister Marcy — and reluctant. He acquiescence does have something to do with a sexual affair with Lydia.

And the town does get painted cardinal, thanks to the shadowy lighting that designer Amith Chandrashaker throws on the arched grey walls of Derek McLane’s joyless set. The painting does not, however, come without incident. One focus of trouble is on a long-established but now-languishing bread shop run by Nancy (Becky Ann Baker) with the help of her baker son, Nat (Alex Hurt), who volatile behavior suggests that he’s on the spectrum. Nancy is so against allowing the outside sign for the store, made by her late husband, to be painted red that she decides to close the store.

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Another complication, thrown like a monkey wrench into the proceedings, is the arrival of Li-Wei Chen (Stephen Park) and his son, Jason (Eugene Young), who are Chinatown-based developers. They see the newly revitalized town as a spot they can buy into — initially with a teaching hospital converted from a defunct axle factory (before the industrial age ended).

The elder Chen is impressed with the chutzpah-lade Lydia. He thinks she’s a great match and catch for Jason, who, by the way, isn’t sold on dad’s business. He wants to teach English on the West Coast, but he does like the idea of connecting with Lydia.

The playwright jiggers a combustion of these motive-conflicted characters, including a gun that goes off in a nod to Chekhov. Although it may be that everything described above seems promising, it is not. Indeed, Cardinal is not a good play by any means. It’s fine that Lydia is empowered but she’s as alienating a protagonist as might be encountered on a bad day. She may love-love-love her native burg but, by constantly disparaging its inhabitants, ultimately her only positive quality is how she steamrolls everyone in her path. As a matter of convenience, all the men she comes in contact with are highly steamroller-able. Jeff is mother-pecked, still carries a torch for Marcy, and jumps up and down and stamps his feet when he’s angered. Jason grows increasingly wimpy. Nat is definitely on the spectrum.

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Nancy, then, is the only appealing one of the bunch. But the scenes in which she and Nat figure are largely extraneous to the lumpy play and could be sidelined entirely if Pierce did not need them as a set-up for a late-play flare-up.

When a play is poor-to-middling, directors and casts can ratchet things up a notch or two. Not here. To pump life into Cardinal, director Kate Whoriskey has her six actors push their lines like carnival pitchmen. Chlumsky is all hands, palms incessantly flat, fingers upturned.

Pally’s mayor does his jumping-stamping tantrum moves more than once. Hurt is intense with his Asperger’s-like outbursts. Park and Young give their all, with little to show for it. So does the always-reliable Baker, but who knows what she’s thinking about this turkey, other than actors have to make a living.

To press her paint-the-town-red strategy, Lydia refers to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Stay home and read it.