Anna Chlumsky finds herself not a million miles away from her-more familiar Veep territory in Greg Pierce’s Cardinal playing at the off-Broadway venue 2nd Stage. Her character, Lydia Lensky, has newly returned to her home turf, a small city in upstate New York, from Brooklyn. She is a wise-cracking, occasionally profane fireball of energy.
She is not lobbying and shadow-boxing in the corridors of Washington power in Cardinal, but instead is on a mission to restore the fortunes of this town which has gone, depressingly, to seed. Quite why she is so fixated on this is not made clear. It is part material need, part proud mission—and the area in between those two poles is unclear.
We first meet Lydia in the town’s mayor’s office—the mayor is Jeff Torm, a rumpled, cute schlump played by TV producer and Happy Endings actor Adam Pally, who first proposes a cautious urban renewal program of tax incentives and waterfront redevelopment. Lydia has something much more dramatic in mind: to paint the town red (or “cardinal,” to give reason to the play’s title), so it becomes an urban curio to visit.
If Jeff seems a little bedazzled, well sure it’s Lydia’s crazed energy, but it’s also the memory of her sister who dumped him. Her likeness to her sister powers the charged sexual bond they share.
There is an easy comedy to these scenes that darkens when Lydia and Jeff go to sell their all-red vision to the townspeople, represented by Nancy Prenchel (Becky Ann Baker) and her son Nat (Alex Hurt). They run a bakery; and Baker, whose commanding and nuanced performance is a standout, is both maternal and protective and no sufferer of fools (Nat seems to be autistic, or on the spectrum although this is never stated).
Nancy doesn’t want to have to paint her outdoor sign red. She wants no part of this nonsense at all. Into the mix then comes Li-Wei Chen (Stephen Park) and his son Jason (Eugene Young), who are slowly buying up the town, beginning with a set of bus tours for Chinese visitors, which relate—in Mandarin—a hokum story of the town’s steelworkers returning as angry “metal” ghosts.
There is, then, plenty of humorous material in Cardinal, but the play doesn’t know how much it wants to make us laugh versus clasp our hands together in worry and concern about the state of urban America. We are encouraged to laugh at Lydia’s bratty determination and Jeff’s hangdog compliance, and then we are asked to worry much more gravely about the state of the American city and the fate of shop-owners like Nancy.
Nat is a barely developed character, beyond the stock-in-trade tics of the-character-with-autism on TV, whose instability leads to him wielding a gun with predictably terrible consequences.
Quite what the play is trying to say about the Chinese, in the characters of Li-Wei and Jason, is anyone’s guess. But again, we are encouraged to laugh at how exacting the father is about capers, then be awed by his predatory, urban ruthlessness; then laugh at his son for being a bit of douche, then be concerned for beguiling, geeky slacker Jason when he and Lydia become, out of nowhere, the target of racists.
Li-Wei has a map of a Chinese city on the side of his desk, which fascinates Lydia, the significance of which seems to be that, like the nameless town everyone is fighting over from within, towns are the sums of the stories and myths that coalesce around them. We must nurture them, but we can rarely control them or the people within them, or indeed the economic conditions that shape all the players and the urban geography itself.
It adds another layer of strange that this production is directed by Kate Whoriskey, who last directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat at the Public Theater and Studio 54. That too was about an American town in decline and the racism and blue-collar implosion flowing from it, and traced the effects of this economic dysfunction on its inhabitants. It too mixed comedy and drama, but its true anchor of tragedy was never in doubt.
The clunky scene transitions in Cardinal echo a more labored and less sure production. It never answers what Lydia is getting out of all this energy devoted to the town and its future, or what Li-Wei really wants. This feels less like ambiguity and more like a hedging of bets.
Cardinal wants to find the funny in something that it also wants us to not laugh at. It wants to be snappy and fun, and it also wants to be Arthur Miller. The characters—bar Baker’s pin-sharp Nancy—are a little impossible to connect to, or to root for, and so we end up stuck between whimsy and urban decline. The ending of Cardinal is a mild nod to accommodation, cultural understanding and cautious ambition, which feels an inadequate slam on the breaks for all that has preceded it, gun shot and all.
On the way out, the companion of a gentleman near me asked what he thought. The gentleman paused and replied diplomatically, “Well, everyone’s working very hard up there.” He’s right, and we feel every thrash of their frantic energy.
Cardinal is at 2ndStage (Tony Kiser Theater), 305 West 43rd St., NYC, through Feb. 25. Book tickets here.