(l-r) Josh Stamberg, Eric Ladin, Brendan Griffin and Elizabeth Rodriguez in "The Power of Duff." (Michael Lamont)
In recent years, many pundits and commentators swirling about the 24-hour news cycle have suggested that America may be on the verge, or already embroiled in, another culture war.
If sides were be drawn in said war, it would be the humanist, secularist, diversity-supporting Liberals vs. the God-fearing, traditionalist, family-values-following Christian right. One of the main staging grounds of this battle is along the traditional party line separating Church and State. Should children be taught biblical stories in school? Is it fair to prominently display Christmas decorations in public places? Is it appropriate for people in positions of power to publicly declare their spirituality?
It is this last hot button which playwright Stephen Belber chose to press with his newest production, “The Power of Duff” at the Geffen Playhouse in West Lost Angeles.
“Duff” follows Charlie Duff (Josh Stamberg), a slick, square-jawed news anchor broadcasting out of Rochester, New York. Charlie swaggers through his life like a less charming Don Draper, bedding women and propagating his image at the expense of his marriage (he’s divorced) and his relationship with his son, Ricky (they’re not on speaking terms). Charlie’s only friends in the world are his spunky, confrontational co-host Sue (Elizabeth Raspell) and zany, lewd sportscaster John (Brendan Griffin).
Then, everything changes when Charlie gets word that his distant father has dropped dead of a heart attack. Struck by grief, guilt, and feelings of mortality, Charlie feels his masculine facade fading fast. The next evening, at the end of his broadcast, the newscaster breaks into an impromptu prayer, urging his audience to send their blessings to the spirit of his passed father. It’s a rare moment of honest transparency, and, for an audience of working-class stiffs, the religious appeal really hits home.
Although Charlie’s boss, sourpuss station head Scott (Eric Laden), thinks what he’s doing makes a mockery of journalism, he can’t deny the results: the ratings are soaring, the social media presence is blowing up, and Charlie is becoming something of a cult hero, all due to the power of prayer. Though Sue remains skeptical, John fully buys into the hype, encouraging Charlie to push the limit even further. Each night, Charlie says a new prayer for a new cause—the return of a kidnapped girl, the rescue of a downed prop plane, etc.—and each time, his prayer miraculously comes true.
Sensing that prayer alone isn’t enough, John convinces Charlie to actually visit one of the people he’s “blessed”—Casey, a young inmate at the Five Points penitentiary serving 75 years for murder and armed robbery. Despite his cynicism, Charlie can’t help but be charmed by the funny, eloquent young man, making him realize that the men and women he’s prayed for are not just props in his quest for redemption.
This newfound respect is put to the test when Casey is beaten half to death by guards at the prison. As the young man lays on his death bed, Scott appeals to Charlie not to pray for the young man’s recovery, as there’s no way this prayer could ever work. If a prayer of this level fails, Scott reasons, the success of all Charlie’s past prayers could be called into question. Does Charlie really believe in his own powers? Has it all been coincidence or providence? Can one man really make a difference just by praying?
Indeed, “Duff” raises many big questions, only to answer them with disappointing alacrity. Without delving into spoilers, I can safely say that every time Belber introduces a major upcoming event or point of conflict, said wrinkle is smoothed out within three or four scenes, completely neutering any dramatic tension or stakes-heightening. This kind of slapdash, rushed structure makes it feel at times as though the play was written extemporaneously, without any kind of treatment or organized beat-sheet. In addition, the entire second half of the second act feels perfunctory, with the real climax having already come and gone with the Casey storyline.
That being said, “Duff” has its strengths. Director Peter DuBois neatly stages the drama against a monolithic white brick wall, which, for all its minimalism, manages to really convey the harried bustle of broadcast news.
In addition, Josh Stamberg delivers a tremendously affecting performance as the titular Duff, nimbly bouncing between quippy humor and raw emotion as his character weathers a difficult spiritual awakening. Similar kudos are due to Brendan Griffin, whose lightning-quick energy boueys the often sloppy, crude prose given his character, as well extremely talented newcomer Maurice Williams, who easily steals the show with his incredibly nuanced, well-researched turn as Casey. Unfortunately, not all the performances live up to these high standards. Tanner Buchanan stumbles hastily over his lines as pouty adolescent Ricky, and the less said about Elizabeth Rodriguez’s flat, utterly tone-deaf Sue the better.
Overall, “The Power Of Duff” is entertaining and packs a solid message. However, issues of consistency in both the writing and acting departments hamper its intended impact. Nevertheless, at the heart of the play, there is something interesting being said about the state of our society’s current obsession with “equality” at any cost.
“The Power of Duff” is playing now through May 17th at the Geffen Playhouse. For more information, visit geffenplayhouse.com.