“The Power of Duff” by Stephen Belber, Huntington Theatre’s current production, directed by Peter Dubois, was first staged by Dubois last summer at New York Stage and Film and Powerhouse Theatre. The story first saw light almost a decade ago when Belber created it in the form of a screenplay, which was optioned by Universal Studios and was said to be of interest to director Ron Howard and actor Russell Crowe. In its present form, it betrays its cinematic roots in that there are many very brief and dialogue-heavy scenes. This actually works to its advantage, given that the screenwriter-turned-playwright sets most of the action in a television studio, Channel 10 in Rochester, New York, where breaking news is delivered by co-anchors Charles Duff (David Wilson Barnes) and Sue Raspell (Jennifer Westfeldt) in the typical fast and furious sound-bitten manner so prevalent today. Belber nails the ersatz world of what passes for broadcast news today, right down to the self-conscious scribbling the on-air staff engages in whenever the lights start to dim. There’s even the wise-cracking colleague sportscaster John Ebbs (Brendan Griffin) to complete the picture, as well as their self-absorbed boss Scott Zoellner (Ben Cole) and their fatuous reporter Ron Kirkpatrick (Joe Paulik, who also plays several other roles). Another character, Joseph Andango (Russell G. Jones), was once the focus of a feature story on the station. As for Charlie’s personal life, there’s a good deal of baggage in his damaged relations with his son Ricky (Noah Galvin) and ex-wife Lisa (Amy Pietz). Each of them is about to be impacted by Charlie’s sudden on-air change.
On most nights, Charlie closes with his personal tagline, “have a good night”, but this is about to change, as he ends with a prayer for his recently deceased father on the air. Understandably, for legal reasons, his boss is apoplectic at first (though he also admits to a slight case of religious PTSD) though he’ll soon succumb to the power of ratings; his colleagues are shocked (but in different ways that hint at their own problems dealing with faith); his family is disgusted, given his previous priority of career angst over familial concerns. Most tellingly, the varying reactions of the public are what drive the progress of the play. A fascinating, original premise becomes the catalyst for a whole lot of soul-searching and searching for a soul. While Charlie is told by one of his colleagues “experience is just time, what you have is heart”, we’ve seen him prefer a handshake to a hug and a relationship to his viewers over his more immediate circle of co-workers, friends and family. As his on-air praying apparently begins to affect the world around him in miraculous ways, others question whether his is an anchor desk or a pulpit, and whether his increasing public power and his frustrated personal ambition are a toxic combination. Belber has stated that the community effect of Charlie’s prayer is central to his concept of the play.Though he’s not religiously affiliated, he states that he’s “always been suspicious of some sort of…force to be reckoned with”. What he’s feeling is a desire to connect: “if we close our eyes we find faith, if we open them we find each other”. He has settled in the past for what Belber calls the “seductive mediocrity that leads to either pompous self-regard or extreme yearning and existential woe”. Now, as he sees the effect he has on the larger community, he begins to build the courage to reach out and to accept reconciliation in return. Meanwhile, he’s tempted by all sorts of diversions, including a devilish Google exec. He longs for the days when he connected with his father’s remark that “this is the way it should be” (an unintended nod to the banal phrase used by a certain New England state, “the way life should be”).
Occasional Hallmark-like clichés aside, this is an impressive effort. It’s a bit of a bipolar work, with a somewhat manic first act (especially due to the hilarious jock-caster played by Griffin) and a contrasting serious, almost depressing second act. Yet it succeeds, in large part due to the fine work by Barnes and Westfeldt in their complicated on-and-off-air relationship, the hyperventilated hypocrisy displayed by Cole as their wavering superior, the sensitive portrayals by Jones, Pietz and Galvin, and the all-too-identifiable shallowness of their man-on-the-street played by Paulik. Jones is particularly poignant as the HIV-positive man who is one of the recipients of Charlie’s intervention. On the technical side, there is superb work as well, from the wonderful Scenic Design by David Rockwell, who designed “Hairspray” (which also included a television studio) and was a Tony nominee this past season for both “Kinky Boots” and “Lucky Guy”, to the Costume Design by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, the complex Lighting Design by Rui Rita, the Sound Design by M. L. Dogg and Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne.
As the program notes quote from Kierkegaard: “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays”. By the close of the play, Charlie is arguably on his way toward the connectedness he sought. You would do well to make the journey with him, as theater this inventive can assure that theatergoers, in Charlie’s words, “have a good night”.