Cardinal, Greg Pierce’s anodyne take on urban decay and gentrification, offers a breezy but no less pointed version of the tragedy and melodrama in plays like Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park and Lynne Nottage’s Sweat. Staged by Kate Whoriskey, this world premiere at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre also offers a dream gift to Anna Chlumsky (Veep) and Adam Pally (Happy Endings): Juicy roles in the push-me, pull-you vein of romantic comedies like Northern Exposure. A dark vein of cynicism churns Pierce’s blood, however (Slowgirl, presented by Lincoln Center Theater, was a devastating portrayal of teen cruelty) that keeps pulling Cardinal back from the edge of cutesiness. For most of the evening, it’s tough love with a cackle.
The show opens in the mayor’s office of an upstate New York town gone to seed with the departure of local industry and no will in the populace to get with the new century. Native daughter Lydia Lensky (Chlumsky) has ascended from Brooklyn with a plan to rectify the situation and bring life back to her hometown that involves painting every building in the “downtown district” red. She’s even negotiated a deal with a supplier who will discount the paint in the shade that gives the play its title.
Shlumpy mayor Jeff Torm (Pally) is dubious. He has his own plans, involving tax cuts and waterfront development despite the apparent lack of a viable body of water, that Lydia ridicules. (“Tax breaks are, like, reason number 35 why businesses choose to relocate.”) First make the town a destination, she says, and business will follow. She’s armed with photos, charts and figures about other cities that used this strategy with great results (Morocco’s blue city of Chefchaoen, Mexico’s yellow Izamal–yes! these are real places!). Jeff doesn’t stand a chance against this Power Point prodigy of enthusiasm and visual aids.
There’s a back story. Of course there’s a back story. Jeff dated Lydia’s older sister in high school, until she dumped him, leaving him suicidal. And Lydia’s go-getter affect covers the deep insecurity that comes with $500K in debt and a C.V. that has no paying jobs to boast of.
Soon enough, the downtown is turning scarlet and Lydia and Jeff are playing pup-tent in his apartment resembling a dorm room (complete with video game console). And soon after that, once cardinal rules, the place is being overrun by red tour buses filled with Japanese tourists with their cameras and their money to spend in the competing sushi and steamed-roll eateries that have been springing up in place of dying businesses.
In Manhattan, Lydia confronts a slick Japanese developer and his son (the excellent Stephen Park and Eugene Young) who want her to sign on with their rapacious opportunism. She also deals with a bakery owner (the always wonderful Becky Ann Baker of Girls, etc.) and her mentally challenged grown son (Alex Hurt, of Blue Bloods, valiantly underplaying) who holds out against the encroachment until she can’t. Business takes off as the town loses any semblance of its old self.
This is the painful conundrum of progress, as true in ex-urban byways as it is in New York City. Pierce indulges all the stereotypes he can muster (“You’re saving your city!” Lydia post-coitally bubbles. “Plus you just had sex with its hottest Jewess!”) as if determined to make us all as uncomfortable as possible, and it works.
Whoriskey, who coincidentally guided Sweat across the regional theaters to Broadway, isn’t as fully in control of the work as I expected. As likable as the two stars are, they swallow some of the best lines and haven’t quite got the rhythm of the repartee. Jennifer Moeller’s clothes also seem just a bit off, especially for Pally, who is merely rumpled preppie rather than the taste-free fashion disaster Lydia makes him out to be. Derek McLane’s minimal set has to do a lot of work, and it does so gracefully.
Above all, however, Cardinal is a lot of fun until it wears out its welcome. That happens a good 20 minutes before an overwrought ending that lets all the air out of the show. It’s a sure indication that Pierce has, you know, painted himself into a corner without an exit plan.