Cardinal, as referenced in the title of this play, is not one of those guys in the red beanie running the Catholic Church. Nor is it the bird of the same name. Nope. This Cardinal is the color of the 14,000 gallons of paint that Lydia Lenskey (Anna Chlumsky) got for a song and would like to use to enhance the downtown area of her hometown somewhere in Rust Belt of Upper New York State. Well it was her hometown, but she left for college and had a spate of time in Brooklyn. Now she’s back living with her parents and filled with great ideas to share with those less informed.
Back to the red. This is not a red that has gradations of color like the Chefchaoen, Morocco: the “Blue City" that is painted a variety of delicate blues begging you to visit. Nor is it like the dazzling yellow of Izamal, Mexico: the “Yellow City” in Yucatán. Nope this one is going to be plain old red. Flat as a pancake red. Beam me up Scotty - I can't wait.
Lydia appeals to her former high school chum who is now Mayor Jeff Torm (Adam Pally). There is a history there, and Anna plows right through it without a pause. Jeff used to date Lydia's sister in high school and, well, you know how that sort of thing can come up years later. Anyhoo - Jeff agrees to let Lydia try out her idea on the City Council. Surprise, surprise - they approve! (This would have been an excellent scene to see) Lydia is free to drench the down town red-red-red.
Of course there are objectors. People who were doing just fine without the do-over. Nancy (Ann Baker) and her mentally/emotionally challenged son Nat (Alex Hurt) have been very happy eking a living out of their bakery for several years. They do not need, they do not want to change the sign that husband and father Walt created 31 years ago. They do not need, they do not want to have a red sign of ANY sort outside of their establishment. This would have been a great plot line to follow.
This play, however, never rests in one place for long. Soon, as the tourists begin to trickle in, there is another interest that pokes its serpentine head into the mix. Li-Wei Chen (Stephen Park) who runs Red City Tours, based in China Town in Manhattan, has somehow become aware of this Cardinal town in Nowhere New York and is sending busloads of tourists there. Seriously. Where he found these people, I could not tell you. But he did and now Mr. Chen wants to take over the city with his evil plot to turn it into a thriving Asian community that is a beacon for even more tourists that will magically appear.
Lydia, we finally learn, played a practical joke on the town when she was in high school. The town has never forgiven her for it, and one can hardly blame them. Lydia is not a likeable person. She is arrogant and condescending and patronizing. The trifecta of distasteful personality traits. She is the kind of person who you can imagine pulling the wings off of flies. When she and the Mayor fall into a romance of sorts, Lydia does not hesitate to taunt him with reminders of his high school relationship with her sister. She ridicules the owners of the bakery. She dismisses anyone blocking her path. This is one impossible gal who will throw people under the bus every chance she gets. As played by Ms. Chlumsky, any possible redeeming characteristics are safely hidden, which makes our investment pretty much non-existent.
The story twists and turns and, as I said, never lights long enough for an actual plot line to sink in. There is a confrontation that comes out of nowhere complete with reconciliation in a hospital waiting room. Lydia and Jeff end up back where they started – sort of. As a matter of fact everything is left in a "sort of" state. Unfulfilling and then some.
All the elements of this production are on the dull side – writing, staging, direction, performance and delivery. Actors forget to keep their faces in sight. Lines are mumbled. Enthusiasm falters. After a while you just give up trying to follow the bread crumbs and wait for the train to run out of steam. Which it does.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"The tonal lurching makes “Cardinal” feel whimsical and even a bit aleatory, like a John Cage sonata. Yet I have to believe that a playwright as sophisticated as Mr. Pierce has made these baffling, disruptive choices meaningfully."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Painting the town red is slang for celebrating in style, but the phrase takes on a decidedly literal meaning in “Cardinal,” a farfetched and muddled play at Second Stage offering little reason to celebrate."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"It's certainly admirable that the theater company is nurturing works by talented playwrights such as this one, whose credits include the dramas Slowgirl and Her Requiem and books for the musicals Kid Victory and The Landing, both in collaboration with famed composer John Kander. But it might have been nice if, before giving Pierce the assignment, they ensured he had something to say."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...