Theater Reviews: Cardinal and He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box

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Anna Chlumsky and Adam Pally in Cardinal. Photo: Joan Marcus

Greg Pierce’s new play Cardinal, now at Second Stage Theater under the direction of Kate Whoriskey, is a bit like its own central character, Lydia Lensky: Both are cute at the outset and probably mean well, despite cynical tendencies — but when you get down to it, both are pretty awful. Cardinal is part of a widespread, depressing trend in contemporary playwriting and, crucially, play-producing that might be called the Law and Order: SVU gambit: Stick to a tested formula — be it solving New York’s latest especially heinous sex crime, or crafting a basic, sitcomesque family drama or quirky romance or coming-of-age tale — then insert a hot-button issue. Hang the plot on that topical talking point enough to make the audience feel like they’re participating in a larger, gratifyingly consequential cultural conversation, but don’t offer much commentary, apart from, “Well, it sure is complicated.” Conclude with something bittersweet, an acknowledgment that things are tough and people have been hurt, but, like Benson and Stabler, we’ll all go on to fight another day.

The difficult thing about the SVU gambit is that it can be practiced cynically or in good faith, but the results are the same. I believe Pierce approached Cardinal from a place of sincerity; after all, the play takes place in a city that seems to mirror his own hometown in Vermont. But the story’s dependence on stale devices betrays its would-be hopeful messaging. Its form is typical of a new play in the age of Netflix: characters with recognizable clothes and hair and accessories play out scenes of snappy dialogue (or dialogue that aspires to snappiness), and, between these scenes, the lights go down and some transitional music plays as walls fly in and out and the stage crew pushes furniture around. I mean, without jump cuts, what else can you do? Whoriskey ends up answering that question with, “Not much.” She and her designers have opted for the tried-and-trite TV-onstage aesthetic, and her work with her actors, especially her male lead, often feels stuck on the surface.

At the center of Cardinal are Anna Chlumsky as Lydia Lensky — an outwardly plucky, inwardly fraught aspiring entrepreneur who returns to her unnamed Rust Belt hometown with a scheme to revitalize it — and Adam Pally (of ABC’s Happy Endings) as Jeff Torm, the town’s diffident young mayor. Looks-wise, he’s got a kind of poor man’s Justin Trudeau thing going, but just like Lydia, he’s all messed up on the inside. She comes trailing clouds of furtive shame and debt from an unsuccessful stint in Brooklyn trying to make it as a music producer — or maybe just as an adult. He’s chronically insecure and has backne and headaches from the antidepressants he’d rather people not know he’s taking. Plus, he’s still hung up on the girl who dumped him back in high school — who happens to be Lydia’s sister.

So, of course, they sleep together. Right after the city votes “yes” to Lydia’s eccentric urban-renewal project, which is literally to paint the town red. “Just downtown,” she assures Jeff. “Six-block radius.” She can get a great deal on paint — guess the color-chip name — as long as they buy 14,000 gallons, and she’s done her research. At a town meeting, she cranks up the salesperson charisma, confidently clicking through a slideshow of images of Chefchaouen, Morocco, and Izamal, Mexico, cities whose massive tourism industries sprang in part from their monochrome, primary-colored buildings — and, you know, maybe from the fact that they’re not located in the industrial American northeast, but Lydia skates past that. She half-charms, half-bullies the populace into accepting her proposal, reminding them that their town, like so many in America, is dying. “Our city sprang up around a factory that made axles and shipped them downriver,” she proclaims. “But we don’t make axles anymore. We don’t even have that river.”

Poor Pally: He’s making his stage debut (unless you count some improv in his 20s), and mostly looks lost up there under the lights. Nervousness is Mayor Jeff’s milieu, but Pally’s stiffness doesn’t entirely read as performance. And while Chlumsky does her best to hint at the self-loathing beneath Lydia’s spunk (she doesn’t really want to remake the town — she wants to remake herself), she’s stuck wrestling with one of those characters we’re told is irresistible, but whose behavior is continuously insufferable. Nevertheless, everyone seems attracted to her. A rival entrepreneur who has his own plans to cash in on the newly painted city takes a professional shine to her, and that rival entrepreneur’s son ends up dating her, despite the fact that their temperaments are massively ill-matched. Even the son of the local shopkeeper who voted “no” on Lydia’s plan — a young man with developmental disabilities, perhaps autism — carries a torch for her. No, Cardinal isn’t above including a character on the autism spectrum for immediate sympathy points, nor is it above throwing him into a moment of contrived violence to bring about the show’s emotional climax. The manipulative melodrama is almost funny in its brazenness.

The actors who acquit themselves most credibly are the play’s older generation: Becky Ann Baker as Nancy, the widowed shopkeeper who feels forced to sell her business in the wake of her town’s rapid changes, and Stephen Park as Li-Wei Chen, the pragmatic Chinatown businessman who buys Nancy’s store and sets up a number of lucrative businesses in the Red City. Mr. Chen far outclasses the excitable novice Lydia when it comes to money-making schemes, and the pair go head-to-head when she realizes that he’s started a series of bus tours around the town, spinning a dramatic yarn about the origins of the city’s paint job. Lydia is affronted — “Your facts are all bullshit!” — but Mr. Chen is unruffled. “I prefer to call it ‘creative,’” he replies. “Let’s be honest: If we didn’t use our imaginations, who the fuck would want to live where you grew up?”

Despite having to deliver some wince-inducing lines (“I love this country. It produces such strong women!”), Park makes Mr. Chen perhaps the most appealing character in Cardinal. He’s an operator, but he’s no hypocrite. Unlike Lydia, he hustles, but he doesn’t deceive others or himself. And his scene with Baker’s Nancy — a sturdy, caring, unpretentious woman who’s notably the only character immune to the Lydia bug — is one of the play’s most genuine. Here, Pierce proves he’s capable of something understated and, in the hands of two solid actors, even elegant. The pair of parents are brought together late in the action by a chaotic encounter involving their two sons, and Cardinal comes closest to fulfilling its ideological aspirations as we watch these strangers — the struggling white Rust Belt mother and the savvy, successful immigrant patriarch — hesitantly attempt to support each other.

But it’s all a little neat. As the back wall of Derek McLane’s set flies out for the final scene to reveal a soft, watercolor backdrop, we get the sense that the battered, apologetic Lydia and Jeff are quite literally experiencing a “the sun’ll come up tomorrow” moment. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with good, old-fashioned American optimism, it’s yet another nod to the formula — the story arc that moves from complexity toward comfort, not the other way around. Pierce might have had noble goals with Cardinal, but he and Whoriskey have fallen into the trap of purporting to make us think hard thoughts, when really we’re leaving with easy feelings.

From He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, at Theater for a New Audience. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

There’s nothing formulaic about Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, now having its world premiere at Theatre for a New Audience. In fact, this fragmentary new one-act from the Obie-winning playwright of Funnyhouse of a Negro is so brief and intangible, I left it with a certain phrase from Shakespeare running through my head: “momentary as a sound, swift as a shadow, short as any dream.” At 50 minutes, the play feels fascinating but unfinished, a sketch in which a brilliant artist with a long, illustrious career (Kennedy is 86 years old) lays ideas down on paper. They’re sharp, evocative ideas, though they’re currently too loosely assembled for the piece as a whole to achieve much more than passing interest. It’s a shame, because Kennedy’s play shouldn’t slip away so easily. Its subject matter and her unique style warrant deeper, more engaged consideration.

With the premiere of Funnyhouse in New York in 1964, Kennedy announced herself as a theatrical force whose power sprang from fearless formal experimentation, eloquent rage, and a mind teeming with cultural references, fixations, and ghosts. Her debut was a hallucinatory journey into the identity of a woman named Sarah who, wrestling with her race and gender, introduced audiences to the shades of Queen Victoria, Patrice Lumumba, and Jesus Christ, as projected facets of her fractured self. The Village Voice’s Michael Feingold later wrote of her, “With Beckett gone, Adrienne Kennedy is probably the boldest artist now writing for the theater.” But Kennedy herself never actually embraced the title of “playwright,” preferring to model herself as a genre-spanning writer in the tradition of Federico García Lorca. As a child in Cleveland in the 1930s and ‘40s, Kennedy grew up on a mix of Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois, glamorous Hollywood movies, and Western classics, from Jane Eyre to A Streetcar Named Desire and Hamlet.

This rich, contradictory collage of influences has always informed Kennedy’s work, and He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is no exception. The play — her first in almost 10 years, and her first in 20 without a co-writer — is another dreamlike patchwork, a series of ruminations and images drawn from both life and literature. That literature includes allusions to Christopher Marlowe, the Brothers Grimm, and the 1940 Hollywood musical romance Bitter Sweet (though only the last of those three has an apparent role). But the fragments that spring from Kennedy’s own experience feel much more pointed. In a New York Times interview, Kennedy spoke of writing the play quickly and angrily, in the house in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she now lives with her son Adam. Of the colonial Southern town that’s been her home for six years now, she says, “I hate it … They seem to glorify slavery … They have all these pageants. They really do seem to glorify that time.”

The real meat of He Brought Her Heart Back comes from Kennedy’s own complex relationship with the South — from memories of her mother, her grandmother, and her white, maternal grandfather, who owned the peach orchards in Montezuma, Georgia, where her grandmother worked. In the play’s program, Kennedy includes one of her own recent poems called “Forget,” in which she recalls meeting her grandfather — and being let into his big Georgia house by the back door. In the poem’s final lines, she speaks in her mother’s voice:

she used to say to me when I was a child,

Adrienne, when I went to town to get the

mail, they would always say

here comes that little yellow bastard.

Echoes and shadings of Kennedy’s past — the story of her mother and grandmother — float all through He Brought Her Heart Back. They’re bound up in the bodies of only two actors: the luminous Juliana Canfield, who plays a young woman called Kay, and Tom Pecinka, who gives a thoughtful, deliberate performance as a young man named Chris Aherne. (Pecinka also sometimes stands in for Chris’s father, Harrison Aherne, though it’s tricky to decipher exactly when.) Chris is white; Kay is mixed-race. Kay attends a Georgia boarding school for “coloreds.” (Kennedy’s mother attended such a school, paid for by her father.) Chris’s father Harrison owns the town’s peach orchards and often visits the school, where he has several children by different young black women who work in his fields — still, though the year is 1941. Chris often speaks of his father, who is powerful and respected; Kay speaks of her mother, who is dead. The pair are in love, but the path before them is murky. In Evan Yionoulis’s graceful staging, on a set by Christopher Barreca dominated by a steep staircase, the first tableau we see immediately evokes Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene: young man below, young woman above. Nighttime, desire, innocence.

But, Kennedy suggests, it should evoke a profound, bloody guilt as well. Kay and Chris might be pure of heart; they might truly aspire to a life as guileless, humble, and free as the one described in Bitter Sweet’s old standard, “Dear Little Café,” which Pecinka delivers in clear, beautiful voice during the show. But, as in Shakespeare, the purity and love of a single pair may not be enough to combat the hatred of the world they live in. It’s not even enough to wipe away their histories. Kay and Chris speak constantly of their parents, their heritage. They can’t escape the ghosts of both the living and the dead, and though they gaze at each other with brightness and longing in their eyes, their actual words seem never to land. Neither one responds to the other, so much as continues in his or her own monologue when the lover pauses.

They spend most of the play separated. Chris, we learn early on, is leaving Georgia for that most romantic (and doomed) of aspirations: to try to be an actor in New York. Pecinka and Canfield deliver their text as if quoting snippets of letters, or simply verbalizing thoughts that the absent lover might never hear. But even in their few moments of physical togetherness, they seem to speak across vast distances, through a kind of haze. Can the white boy whose father owns half the town (and whose grandfather was responsible for instituting its Jim Crow laws) ever truly see the mixed-race girl whose mother gave birth to her at 15? The girl whose father, like his own, is another white patriarch, who pays for his daughter’s schooling but effectively destroyed her mother, who was no more than a child herself? Kennedy’s title is spoken by Kay, who’s recalling eerie family whispers about her mother’s death: After giving birth to Kay, the young woman ran away to Cleveland, where she died mysteriously — perhaps by suicide, perhaps murder. According to the whispers, her father traveled to Ohio and brought her mother’s heart back in a box.

It’s a haunting image, and in Canfield’s soft, inquisitive voice, it’s both gorgeous and chilling — and, like so much in Kennedy’s play, it evaporates too soon. The sketch is never filled in. Yionoulis does first-rate work with her two young actors: They show a commitment to nuanced, sincere character work that provides ballast to the play’s shifting substance. But it’s still not quite enough to anchor us. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is a play full of ache and anger, but its exploration of the monstrous national heritage that has helped to bring us to our present moment is so fleeting and fractured that it often feels unmoored. The play’s violent climax arrives so soon, and dissolves so quickly into its final moment, that the lights are up and the actors are bowing before you’ve fully adjusted to Kennedy’s dense theatrical language.

It’s a good thing to leave a play full of questions. But it’s frustrating when you leave feeling fuzzy, as if perhaps the struggle to parse what you’ve seen isn’t worth the time. Of course it is worth it, but it’s already too easy to let theater go and move on with your night. Call it unjust, but the medium has got to fight to hold us, and intriguing though it is, He Brought Her Heart Back doesn’t always succeed. The risk of a play like Kennedy’s is that it could lose its audience before it truly hits them, but I’d rather experience a radical experiment like this — even one that feels a little underdeveloped — over a well-worn formula any day. You can’t craft an experience like this on television.

Cardinal is at Second Stage through February 25.

He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is at Theatre for a New Audience through February 11.

Theater: Cardinal and He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box