Huntington's "Power of Duff": Breaking Views

“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 clich├ęs 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”.


Lyric Stage's "Water by the Spoonful": Medicine by the Byteful

The current Lyric Stage production of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, “Water by the Spoonful”, by Quiara Alegria Hudes (Tony winner for “In the Heights” in 2008) presents us with playwriting at its most profound and live theater performance at its most moving. This powerful play makes it clear that, while our lives may be dissimilar on the surface, we all follow remarkably parallel paths as we wrestle with the challenges in our everyday lives. This second in her trilogy of works based on the real life experiences of her cousin Elliot, a veteran of the war in Iraq, (the other two being “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue”, a finalist for Pulitzer a few years ago, and “The Happiest Song Plays Last”, recently premiered in Chicago), proves that Hudes is a literary force to be reckoned with, a major new star in the theatrical firmament. This work continues the story she began in her first play, as Elliot Ortiz (Gabriel Rodriguez, seen last season in New Rep’s remarkable “Amadeus”) returns home to his fractured family in Philadelphia (of Puerto Rican descent, as is the playwright herself), struggling to find his place in the what’s left of his world. At the same time, a group of drug addicts in recovery are shown interacting via an online chat room as they too seek, as Hudes puts it, “community… acceptance…connection…redemption, even if it’s only drop by drop”.

While Elliott finds varying degrees of support from family, especially his cousin Yazmin (Sasha Castroverde) and mother Odessa (Mariela Lopez-Ponce), the three chat members, known by their online monikers, Fountainhead (Gabriel Kuttner), who hides his addiction from his wife and even from himself, Chutes&Ladders (Johnny Lee Davenport) who has lost contact with his family and bemoans that he is “fifty years old on a good day”, and Orangutan (Theresa Nguyen), who has chosen to flee to the country of her birth, all find support in their literal interconnectedness. Odessa happens to lead the chat room activity, but she has her own struggle with recovery, as Elliott notes “we all have skeletons, but, yeah, she’s an archeological dig”. By the time we’ve grown to know these characters better, it seems that the regeneration and renewal they all seek is just around the corner, but as Odessa says to Elliott, “staying sober is like dancing on a mine field”.

As described by A. Nora Long, Lyric’s Associate Artistic Director, they “wrestle with loss, identity, poverty, family, faith and fear; drug addiction is only part of that struggle”. They all, individually and collectively, face these real issues, some more effectively than others. As Chutes&Ladders puts it, there are only two rules: “don’t use, and don’t hurt anyone”, but this is easier said than done. What they all aspire to do is to learn how to live, all over again. At one point the question is asked whether they believe in God, in miracles, or at the very least, in action. At another point assurance is given to Elliott: “I know you can do this, but I know you can’t do it alone”. Yet his final decision regarding his present role (a “maker of sandwiches”) and his future dream (to have an acting career) will mirror the lives of the online family, as he moves from caregiver to reconciliation with family to a drastic change in locale. As he says at the end of the play, “If I stay…I’m gonna become one of them; I’m already halfway there… you’ve got armor, you’ve got ideas, but I don’t.” Rodriguez is especially touching in this scene. This may seem all too somber, but there are many touches of humor as well. To the question as to what his native tongue is, Elliott answers “Spanglish”, and one of the group sends another member who can’t swim a pair of water wings. (After all, Hudes’ middle name means “joy”). But the serious message is that just as water by the spoonful every five minutes prevents dehydration, baby steps in recovery are equally small and powerful.

The underlying dissonance these people endure is effectively, even unforgettably driven home by every member of this stellar cast (including Zaven Ovian, in several supporting roles) under the meticulous direction of Scott Edmiston. The technical staff is also at the top of their game, from Sound Design & Composing by Dewey Dellay (utilizing, per the author’s instructions, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and “Ascension”), to Scenic Design by Richard Wadsworth Chambers, to Costumer Design by Elisabetta Polito and Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, with the exception of brief scenes with overhead lighting that obscured the actors’ facial expressions.

This is a stunning, profoundly memorable production, nothing short of a dramatic triumph for Lyric Stage. As one of Hudes’ mentors, playwright Paula Vogel, once asked: “How many plays make us long for grace?”. This is surely one of them.


New Rep's "Rancho Mirage": Other Desert Pities

New Rep‘s current production of “Rancho Mirage” is one of the National New Play Network of Rolling World Premieres (now there’s a mouthful) wherein several theater companies more or less simultaneously produce promising works by relatively unknown authors. This play is the latest effort by Steven Dietz, the most successful playwright you’ve probably never heard of. His body of work is said to be one of the most frequently performed of all but a handful of American playwrights. A couple of seasons ago, this network gave us “Bakersfield Mist”, the very funny and authentic-feeling comedy by Stephen Sachs. That was an enjoyable two-hander about art and its perception. This time around we’re presented with three couples who have gathered for a dinner party in the gated community referred to as Rancho Mirage (which also happens to be the name of one of those “other desert cities” referred to on a highway exit sign near Palm Springs). All of the couples have been socializing for the past eight years or more, this time at the home of Nick and Diane Dahner, pronounced “Donner” (Lewis D. Wheeler and Tamara Hickey).

Any resemblance to another Donner party may not be intentional, but it would be apt given the manner in which they all cannibalize one another. Over the course of two hours, after a truly preposterous premise that demands that we accept as reality that one of the husbands, Charlie (John Kooi), has made a life-changing decision without previously informing his wife Pam (Cate Damon), we’re exposed to one after another of a series of implausible revelations. Dietz unfolds these secrets using naturally overlapping dialogue and rhythms of speech, but to say that these confessions strain credulity would be an understatement. This would be less of a problem if his characters and their problems were even remotely funny. In real life, one wouldn’t intentionally spend five minutes with such a cruel group of self-pitying, self-centered and self-loathing overgrown children, let alone two hours. The third couple, Trevor (Robert Pemberton) and Louise (Abigail Killeen) have their own issues involving an underage baby sitter, Julie (Marion Mason). At the beginning and end of the work we‘re told by Charlie that these are the “best people we know”; one can only speculate what the worst people they know might be like. Throughout the course of the play, as each of the spouses reveals her or his tragic event, the self-absorbed so-called friends either don’t hear or don’t care, or both; why, then, should we be expected to?

The cast tries valiantly to make us care. All of them do their best to make their characters believable, as directed by Robert Walsh, but it’s an uphill battle. The technical work is top-notch as is the norm at New Rep, from the Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan to the Costume Design by Amanda Maciel Antunes and the Sound Design by Deway Dellay.  Special mention should be made of the earth-toned Scenic Design by John Howell Hood, one of the production’s more credible aspects, right down to the color-coordinated throw pillows, all fourteen of them.

The Rolling World Premieres concept remains a worthwhile one, even if it occasionally results in a major misstep. Sometimes (as, for example, in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) larger-than-life monstrous people can be fascinating in their mutual destruction, but this play (with George and Martha to the third power) proves that isn’t necessarily always the case. At one point, one of the characters describes the evening as a “why-not night”. Let us count the ways.