New York City Theater
Tony Kiser Theater at Second Stage
The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming! In Greg Pierce’s diffident, tangled new play, “Cardinal,” that enterprising country and its signature red color are posited as harbingers of “happiness and luck.” But both traits are in short supply here.
Before she’s blindsided by non-believers and opportunists, Lydia Lensky wants to be the heroine who puts the oomph back into the small, depressed upstate New York town she left years ago. Partly in expiation for a youthful indiscretion, she proposes having dreary downtown façades painted red, figuring tourists will come just to see the colorful transformation, as they are drawn to towns like Morocco’s blue Chefchaouen) and Mexico’s yellow Izamal.
Enlisting the help of an old friend, Mayor Jeff Torm, she fights objectors like Nancy Prenchel who owns a long-established bakery with her mentally challenged son, Nat. Further complicating the scheme, Lydia and Jeff start an affair. (He fantasizes Lydia is her sister, who once rejected him.)
Meanwhile, a Chinatown tour agency, run by Li-Wei Chen and his son Jason, threaten to do a capitalist take-over. Before long, a brick is thrown, a gun is fired and reconciliation between art and commerce, “foreigners” and “natives.” is in the offing. What the author wants to say remains elusive and bewildering.
The production doesn’t help. Kate Whoriskey’s direction is enervating, as is the acting, as is Derek McLane’s set. As Lydia, Anna Chlumsky underplays to the point of vanishing, with Adam Pally’s Jeff suffering from the same malady, except when he jumps up and down like a spoiled child.
Stephen Park’s Li-Wei and Eugene Young’s Jason are more plot devices than characters. But the always vital Becky Ann Baker is vivid as Nancy, as is Alex Hurt as Nat. They’re peripheral but impressive.
At least, you care about them. Just about everything else is beside the point.
-- David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 5, 2018