Signs of the decline and fall of the American Empire are everywhere visible, but perhaps nowhere more than in the Rust Belt, which has decay and depression hammered right into its nickname. Detroit may be its most potent symbol, but this ribbon, stretching from New York to Wisconsin, is peppered with towns both large and small that have never quite recovered from the trauma of deindustrialization.
In Greg Pierce’s Cardinal at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, Lydia (Anna Chlumsky) has returned from Brooklyn to inject new life into her own nameless upstate husk of a hometown, armed with a degree in urban studies and a healthy self-regard. The town long ago lost its primary industry, car-parts manufacturing. Lydia’s plan? To paint a six-block radius around Main Street entirely red. “We used to create axles,” she tells Nancy Prenchel (Becky Ann Baker), a resistant local bakery owner, “now we’re creating an atmosphere—it can’t feel like any other city.” With nothing material left to take from the ground or process in the factories, all that remains are the intangible emotions of the experience economy.
Lydia comes armed with other monochromatic examples from around the world that have become tourist hotspots: Chefchaouen, Morocco, blue; Izamal, Mexico, yellow. Though Jeff (Adam Pally), the town’s mayor and ex-boyfriend of Lydia’s older sister, is initially skeptical, Lydia’s fervor wins him, and voters, over, and the gambit is an immediate success. It’s not long before others swoop in to capitalize on that success, however, including Li-Wei Chen (Stephen Park), an entrepreneur based in New York City’s Chinatown, and his son, Jason (Eugene Young).
If this all sounds like an episode of Parks and Recreation as scripted by Henrik Ibsen, it certainly plays that way, too. What begins as a light comedy of urban renewal quickly becomes a dark study of recrimination. Everything is toxic, from the town lake to the masculinity on display, and the red paint on Main Street only momentarily masks the real rifts of class, race, and gender that killed off America’s small towns long before the manufacturing jobs went overseas. Cardinal packs enough social commentary for a whole season of The Wire into 90 minutes.
Curiously for a work so concerned with the tricky negotiations of public life, the play almost never actually goes outdoors. From the characters’ descriptions, the town seems to have devolved into a post-apocalyptic nightmare out of Escape From New York. The river they used to ship the car parts has, without explanation, been “lost.” Yet the onstage action remains narcoleptic. The primary culprits are Kate Whoriskey’s lethargic direction and Pierce’s often painfully on-the-nose script. For every incisive one-liner such as, “White people will spend their money if they feel like they’re stepping into Aladdin’s Lamp,” there’s a clunky metaphor about cacti and survival. Even the threat of violence, which late in the play becomes actual violence, can’t imbue Cardinal with much of a pulse.
Chlumsky, one of the most fizzingly bitter presences in Armando Iannucci’s pitch-black satires (In the Loop, Veep), nearly holds her own despite a lack of confidence with the text, and comic stalwarts Park and Baker are as reliably wonderful as ever. Pally, whose depressive, barely contained misogynist mayor allows him more shades than the goofy sitcoms like Happy Endings and Making History that made his name, fumbles with the character’s whiplash turns, while Young and Alex Hurt, as Nancy’s autistic son Nat, are forced to shoulder the play’s heaviest scene despite being the thinnest of a group of fill-in-the-blank characters.
Cardinal constantly opens up interesting avenues of exploration, only to draw back. Justifying an act in high school that led to a city-wide blackout as activism, Lydia tells the townspeople gathered in the high school’s “gymnatorium” that she did it to protest the racist hiring practices of a local restaurant, which eventually closed down anyway. That much of what has been lost in America’s implacable forward march actually deserves to disappear is a possibility not often enough explored in the too-simple conservative/liberal talking points that make up the current cultural conversation. Cardinal very nearly adds some color to that discussion, settling instead for the same old comforting black and white.
Cardinal runs through Feb. 25 at the Tony Kiser Theater (305 W. 43rd St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with a special matinee Feb. 24. For tickets and information, visit 2st.com.