The Ticket

‘Cardinal’ stirs things up on the stage


Times are tough upstate. But wait — miracles can happen. Just remember to watch out. Success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

This would seem to be the take-home lesson of “Cardinal,” Greg Pierce’s new play at the Second Stage.

An energetic young woman returns to her hometown, with its shuttered stores and depressed prospects, with a wacky, hair-brained idea. She believes that it’s just so crazy that, guess what? Yes, it’s so crazy, it just might work!

This peppy visionary convinces her old friend, the mayor, that the town needs desperate cosmetic measures, and he reluctantly agrees to go along. I won’t reveal what the scheme is, but I will say it’s preposterous, although completely in keeping with the far fetched dramaturgy here.

“Cardinal” would seem to be a commentary on all those small-town endeavors to draw tourists and retain population. The world’s largest ball of string comes to mind. In the extreme case, we have seen what cities are willing to give away to attract big corporations.

In “Cardinal,” the outsiders do descend, and the result transforms the town, which miraculously does catapult itself into a tourist attraction overnight.

The predictable conflict of the old school versus the new arises when a small business owner, conveniently packaged with a heartstring-tuggin’ sidekick and freshly baked bread, objects to the imposition of the city’s new wave. Complications ensue.

Among them, in a timely nod to real estate dynamics, is the power of the almighty dollar, including the American dollar in the hands of a non-traditional American family corporation. It’s the small-town equivalent of offshore investments on Park Avenue, a trend worthy for either satire or a serious examination. But “Cardinal” pecks only so far, just barely.

The production is busy, with a host of scene changes. The set design by Derek McLane incorporates some video presentations efficiently. Kate Whoriskey directs a cast of six, and to her credit, the scenes move along at a brisk clip, aided by Anna Chlumsky, who plays the obdurate maverick urban planner as a quicksilver dynamo.

Stephen Park turns his role of real estate developer into a crafty opportunist with a knack for punchlines. Alex Hurt gives us a vigorous portrayal of a needy, innocent young man. Becky Ann Baker is the conscience of the piece, and plays her merchant mom with a graceful dignity.

The writing wobbles along, with some sex and ethnic jokes, a noble man-child, a testy faster-son conflict, and a heroine who sees up close and personal how a far-fetched concept in an improbable plot can produce predictable results.

Sadder but wiser, she moves on. So do we.