Greg Pierce satirizes America's cultural impasse in this new play set in a failing Rust Belt town.
Lydia Lensky has big ideas. Her latest one is a plan to save the dying upstate New York community in which she grew up by literally painting the town red in an attempt to attract tourists. This audacious rebranding effort is the basis of Greg Pierce's Cardinal, now making its world premiere at Second Stage Theater. A broad satire on the current state of American politics, Cardinal amuses, confuses, and infuriates — often, all at once.
When we first meet Lydia (played with wide-eyed mania by Anna Chlumsky), she's trying to sell her idea to the town's young mayor, Jeff Torm (Adam Pally uncomfortably occupying authority with adolescent bashfulness). A former high school classmate, Jeff is well acquainted with Lydia, whose most notable exploit remains her destruction of a generator at the power plant as part of a protest against racism. This was shortly before she relocated to Brooklyn by way of Oberlin College. Naturally, longtime residents like bakery owner Nancy Prenchel (a sympathetic Becky Ann Baker) are skeptical of this prodigal daughter returned to save the day by forcing her to paint her property. Nancy's socially challenged son, Nat (a tastefully restrained Alex Hurt), is sure this big government imposition is unconstitutional.
Miraculously, Lydia's plan passes by referendum and the town turns red, attracting a tour bus startup run by ambitious Chinese immigrant Li-Wei Chen (the unnervingly calm Stephen Park) and his less ambitious son, Jason (Eugene Young). The Chens have invented a mythology around the red town, involving victims of an industrial accident that became angry "metal ghosts." None of it is based in fact, but that doesn't matter because fiction sells better than history.
Much of Cardinal's plot looks like an anxiety dream straight out of Trump's America: the liberal elite conspiring with immigrants to destroy the heartland. Angst about an ascendant China is presented in particularly blunt terms, with the Chinese characters commodifying a bastardized version of American culture in a stark reversal of the orientalism that Westerners have engaged in for over a century. Pierce's satire has all the subtlety of a flying two-by-four, but as current events have made clear, sometimes we need a good smack upside the head.
"You need to put your anger at me aside," Lydia condescendingly tells Jeff, "and do what's best for your city." But why should he believe that a person who hasn't lived there since she was a teenager knows what's best? We begin to understand what working-class Trump voters hear when faraway liberals tell them that they're voting against their own interest.
It's likely a lot of audiences will find Lydia repellant, and Chlumsky's unapologetic portrayal does little to mitigate that. They'll dislike her arrogance and hypocrisy. Mostly, though, they'll dislike her because she holds a mirror up to their own worst impulses. The presence of Chlumsky and Baker wasn't the only thing about Cardinal that reminded me of the HBO series Veep and Girls. Both television shows push realism to the border of plausibility, with Veep satirizing America's political elite and Girls taking on the pampered children of the upper-middle class. If you enjoy either of those shows, chances are you'll get a kick out of Cardinal. Others may find Pierce's barbs cut too deep.
Director Kate Whoriskey deftly maintains a tone of levity with a zippy production. Derek McLane's brick-facade set evokes the Rust Belt while offering the versatility to transform the stage into multiple locations. Amith Chandrashaker achieves those transformations with suggestive lighting and a bold use of color. Jennifer Moeller's costumes establish a clear cultural divide among the characters. We get the sense from their shared taste in form-fitting clothes that Lydia has a greater kinship with the Chens than she does with her former neighbors.
It goes beyond clothes: In her friends, lifestyle expectations, and assumptions, Lydia has a lot more in common with Jason than she does with Jeff. While much has been said about the division of America along tribal lines, Pierce persuasively suggests that class trumps all of our intersecting identities. Lydia may say she has an undying affection for her hometown, but as Jason points out, "Whenever you talk about the people here you call them idiots or junkies or skinheads....or you say they don't get you. So if you don't love the people in a place, what exactly do you love?" It's a good question that she never properly answers. Until people like Lydia learn how to offer a convincing response, it seems certain that people like Jeff and Nancy will continue to resist their big ideas.