All hell breaks loose—or is it heaven?—when TV anchor Charlie Duff offers an impromptu (and decidedly prayerful) tribute to his just-deceased father at the end of the nightly news, thereby setting off a firestorm of pro-and-con reactions in Stephen Belber’s The Power Of Duff, a play that is one part dark comedy, one part satire, but ultimately the deeply moving story of one man’s inadvertent quest for redemption.
Agnostic if not downright atheistic Charlie (Josh Stamberg) is the last man you’d expect to pray, either on the air or off. Serial philandering has led to an acrimonious divorce and an ongoing two-year-long estrangement from his teenage son Ricky (Tanner Buchanan). But pray Charlie does, leading to some decidedly mixed reactions from his Rochester, NY work colleagues regarding his newfound spirituality.
Wisecracking sports reporter John Ebbs (Brendan Griffin) is mostly bemused, co-anchor Sue Raspell (Elizabeth Rodriguez) finds his mockery of her religious beliefs offensive, and boss Scott Zoellner (Eric Ladin) would like nothing better than to fire the offensive pray-er, that is if he could get the newsman to return his calls.
Still, Scott does give Charlie a second chance, one which the anchor promptly blows with a second chat with God, one which yields unexpectedly positive, even miraculous results. Then comes another prayer, and another, and before long Charlie Duff’s local celebrity has not only raised the station’s local ratings but attracted national attention as well.
Meanwhile, Scott has given in to Sue’s request to expand her recent report on prison reform into a five-part series, one which soon has Charlie paying a visit to nineteen-year-old African-American inmate Casey (Maurice Williams), serving a life sentence for an act of violence whose punishment does indeed fit the crime.
Far be it from this reviewer to reveal any further plot twists other than to say that none of The Power Of Duff’s dramatis personae turns out to match our first impressions of him or her, and in fact one of great pleasures of Tape-scribe Belber’s latest is the gradual discovery of each character’s hidden depths.
Belber has bitten off a lot in The Power Of Duff—the nature of faith, the power of prayer, and the possibility of miracles—in addition to offering a behind-the-scene look at local news broadcasts, at a prison system in need of reform, and at a father-son relationship that could well be broken past the point of repair … and for a while in Act Two it seems that what he’s bitten off may be too much to chew.
Fortunately, the acclaimed playwright-screenwriter-movie director knows precisely when to rein things in … simply, movingly, and with a powerful note of grace.
The Power Of Duff’s West Coast Premiere features at least two major revisions since its New England Premiere a year and a half ago at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. Charlie’s wife Lisa has been left on the cutting room floor and the character of a Nigerian immigrant with AIDS transformed into a teenage perpetrator/victim of gang violence, and I’m guessing that the play is stronger for these changes.
Imported from that original Boston production are its director Peter DuBois, on top of his game here as he was in the Geffen’s 2013’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, and two of its cast members, both of them out-and-out brilliant. Griffin positively dazzles as John, a foul-mouthed, high-spirited bundle of complexities, and Jon Paulik’s whistle-slick (and absolutely hilarious) work as TV news reporter Ron Fitzpatrick (and three others) is equally well worth being reprised.
As for the new-to-L.A. contingent, it’s hard to imagine a finer choice to play Charlie than Stamberg, who back in 2007 blew me away in a 99-seat-plan production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn Me and whom I could not be more delighted to rediscover eight years later. Not only does Stamberg look like a news anchor with his stature, demeanor, and trustworthy, all-American-handsome face, he digs deep into Charlie’s damaged soul and keeps us hoping the anchor can repair his stagnant career, his damaged relationships, and maybe even his immortal soul.
A fabulous Rodriguez breaks free from the F-word-slinging tough cookies she played on Broadway in The Motherfucker With The Hat and here in L.A. last year in Unorganized Crime with a softer, gentler, yet still hard-edged Sue, whose evolving reactions to Charlie’s on-the-air prayers are a delight to behold.
As for the cast’s two youngest members, sixteen-year-old Buchanan is such a picture of angry teen defiance that you can’t wait to see Ricky’s protective shell crack because then … boy, does this young actor deliver, and U.C. San Diego grad Williams is equally wonderful, taking a character we’ve too often seen treated as a cliché or statistic and giving him nuance and depth.
The Power Of Duff’s West Coast Premiere brings west most of the Huntington Theatre Company production’s ace design team—costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II, lighting designer Rita Rui, sound designer M.L. Dogg, and most significantly projection designer Aaron Rhyne, the latter of whose work transforms Clint Ramos’s spiffy, white brick-walled set (both scenic designer and design are new to the Geffen) from locale to locale (and often quite gorgeously so) but features one deliciously semi-spoofy TV news report video after another.
Craig Napoliello is assistant set designer, E.B. Brooks assistant costume designer, Jenna Pletcher assistant lighting designer, and Ned Stressen-Reuter assistant projection designer.
Understudies Kevin Ashworth, Ian Bamberg, Mell Bowser, Yetta Gottesman, and Jeff Marlow could easily headline their own The Power Of Duff.
Kyra Hansen is production stage manager and Michael Vitale assistant stage manager. Amy Levinson is dramaturg. Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA.
No matter where you stand on religion, spirituality, faith, or belief in a higher power, The Power Of Duff is powerful stuff indeed. It’s play you’ll be discussing at intermission, on the way out of the theater, and for quite some time to come.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
April 16, 2015
Photos: Michael Lamont