Theater Review: ‘Cardinal’

Whose town is it, anyway?
February 6, 2018 Updated: February 12, 2018    

NEW YORK—”Isn’t a place about the people in it?” asks one of the characters in Greg Pierce’s new play, “Cardinal.” The play offers a lesson on the often unforeseen ramifications of urban renewal.

A small, unnamed town in upstate New York is facing an all-too-familiar fate. With the shutting down of the town’s major source of employment (a factory where car axles were made), unemployment has risen, younger people have started moving away, and more and more homes are being abandoned or boarded up.

Lydia Lensky (Anna Chlumsky), however, is determined to change all that. A former resident who moved away after high school, she plans to turn the town into a tourist destination and, once that is accomplished, attract a new anchor industry, such as a hospital, to the area.

In order to bring in tourists, Lydia wants to have the town’s entire business district painted a shade of red called cardinal. Brushing aside the reservations of the somewhat skeptical Jeff Torm (Adam Pally), the town’s newly elected mayor who ran on a platform of urban renewal, she manages to get the matter brought up for a vote and, soon after, passed into law.

With the resulting media publicity, Lydia’s vision starts to become a reality. One of the first people to take advantage of the town’s new popularity is Li-Wei Chen (Stephen Park), a Chinese businessman and entrepreneur, who is quick to send a series of tour buses to the area.

Lydia becomes angry when she learns the tour guides are embellishing some of the town’s history, if not outright changing it altogether. Mr. Chen dismisses her complaint out of hand, but he is impressed enough with Lydia’s drive to offer her a partnership in a future business venture.

Lydia’s steamroller approach in her attempt to save the town fails to take into account the all-important human factor. Many longtime citizens see the identity of the place they once loved starting to disappear in the wake of the Asian-related business moving in. This is personified through the experiences of Nancy (Becky Ann Baker) and her son Nat (Alex Hurt), who run a local bakery and gift shop. Lydia takes the two to task when they refuse to have their business sign painted red, and she later accuses them again when they sell their business to Chen.

But Nancy feels that the town has become a place where she no longer belongs. The irony is that, thanks to Lydia’s tourist idea and an increase in real estate values, Nancy is able now to sell her business for a price that will allow her to start again elsewhere.

Although change is inevitable, those involved in bringing it to fruition must do their best to ensure that the transition never degenerates into an “us versus them” mentality. It’s a message Lydia fails to learn.

Nancy (Becky Ann Baker) and her son Nat (Alex Hurt) own a small business in a town that they no longer recognize. (Joan Marcus)

In fact, Lydia is continually switching sides, with allies becoming adversaries and friends becoming enemies when they don’t accept her point of view. The character is so determined that she is in the right, she even exploits her knowledge of a long-ago affair, never stopping to think about the damage she might cause.

At the same time, despite the money they bring to the town, the influx of Asians into the community threatens to ignite racial backlash. One of the tipping points is the closing of the town’s only grocery store, even as a new Chinese food market is doing a booming business.

Although there is no real villain in the story, there’s no one to really root for either. Lydia, who’s in almost every scene, turns out to be the least developed character in the play. We learn little of her background, other than she’s had problems with money and had an unsuccessful career as a band manager. In addition, despite her stating that she’s trying to save her hometown, we never see her display a deep connection to it. Her involvement seems to be more of an experiment in “Urban Renewal 101,” a phrase she frequently uses.

While we never get enough knowledge about Lydia to really understand her, with Jeff the problem is one of too much information. The character carries a good deal of emotional and familial baggage, much of it coming out at the most awkward times.

The rest of the characters, including Park, who does a great comic turn as Chen (“My adult life has been filled with joy and litigation”), all come off as stock characters who never really grab the heartstrings of the audience.

The story would have also benefited had the audience had a chance to see a wider cross section of townspeople.

Direction by Kate Whoriskey works well. She keeps the action moving nicely—Lydia, Chen, and Jeff often spitting their words out like bullets—as well as making sure the tension level is kept high in the various confrontations that occur, be they comical or dramatic.

“Cardinal” offers a strong warning about the dangers of rushing into things headlong, especially if one doesn’t consider other people’s feelings during the process.

Also in the cast is Eugene Young.

‘Cardinal’
Second Stage Theater at the Tony Kiser Theater
305 W. 43rd St.
Tickets: 212-246-4422 or 2St.com
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Feb. 25

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.

RECOMMENDED