Entertainment » Theatre

The Power of Duff

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Oct 24, 2013
David Wilson Barnes in ’The Power of Duff’
David Wilson Barnes in ’The Power of Duff’  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

Lisa Simpson, that cultural icon, once adapted a Samuel Johnson quote to apply to to an instance of superficial religiosity born more from convenience than faith. "Prayer," she scoffed, in an early episode of "The Simpsons." "The last refuge of a scoundrel."

But what about when prayer wells up, unbidden, from some deep source of pain, loss, despair, or hope? Such is the case in Stephen Belber's play "The Power of Duff," when Rochester news anchor Charles Duff (David Wilson Barnes) spontaneously offers up a prayer at the end of a late-night newscast.

Duff is no paragon. But is he a prophet, or at least a conduit for the workings of a higher power? If so, he's an unlikely vessel: Estranged from his wife Lisa (Amy Pietz), after a long string of infidelities, barely a presence in the life of his 15-year-old son Ricky (Noah Galvin), professionally stranded on the shoals of a minor market, and so unwilling to accept meaningful human contact that even the sudden death of his father can't crack open his thick, bland shell.

Duff is always affable, and never intimate; it's on his own terms that the pay begins, presenting us an array of characters who seem flat, if glossy. Hardass producer Scott Zoellner (Ben Cole) is aggressively alpha-dog in his dealings with Duff; co-anchor Sue Raspell (Jennifer Westfeldt) is ambitious, organized, tightly wound... and, when Duff starts praying on air, caught somewhere between fury and terror. Sportscaster John Ebbs (Brendan Griffin) skates perpetually close to the inappropriate and does so with a sense of jubilant, and juvenile, antic glee. But as events unfold, these superficial layers peel back from the characters, revealing people who are vulnerable, wounded, and confused. (They all have serious problems, but Zoellner might put it best with the line, "I love my wife, but I fuck whores." Like Duff, Zoellner doesn't quite understand his own actions. Unlike Duff, he's not yet found the inspiration to walk away from them.)

Barnes nails Duff's Augustinian urge to embrace his better angels, and brings the play to its best interpretation. Comparisons between "The Power of Duff" and the Paddy Chayefsky-written 1976 movie "Network" are inevitable, but inapt past a certain general similarity: Both feature newsmen who express what's really on their minds, or in their hearts, and strike a populist nerve. Both quickly become cloaked in a dangerous, almost luminous, nimbus of notoriety and influence that's so volatile it can't help but burn itself out in short order.

But Belber forsakes the cynicism that informed Chayefsky's screenplay; the parallels and contrasts are probably not incidental, nor coincidental (Belber is also a screenwriter and a film director), but Belber's neither spoofing nor deliberately attempting to counter "Network." If anything, the targets Belber skewers with his pointed humor have more in common with the James L. Brooks film "Broadcast News," from 1987. (The play makes extensive use of video, with a straight-faced and hilarious Joe Paulik playing reporter-in-the-street Ron Kirkpatrick. What's impressive here isn't the battery of flat screens that are employed to give us the illusion of a newsroom, but the way the footage is kept strictly in service of the stage play, rather than allowed to steal the spotlight.)

But there's another film this play calls to mind with its aura of mystery and its skillful balance between Greek tragedy and redemption yarn, and that's Franco Zeffirelli's 1972 hippie take on St. Francis of Assisi, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon." If Duff has a streak of Augustine in him, he has an even deeper streak of St. Francis of Assisi, teetering between his professional ambitions (suddenly validated, with a sky's-the-limit sense hanging in the air around him) and the more grounded, elemental human truths he's habitually shunned. Duff's prayers -- or simple random chance -- have sparked a wave of change in his community, and attracted national attention, but his personal ground zero is resistant to the therapeutic effects of his prayers. Indeed, Lori -- facing a health crisis -- refuses to become pat of the "circus" that's grown up around him. She doesn't want his prayers. She wants him to be a father to his son.

Throughout, Duff holds on to both his emerging sense of decency, and his sexuality. This prophet is no monk, and that's important, because the things that poisoned his life before now offer healing. But will he stay strong enough to keep to the path that forsakes ego and arrogance? Lori certainly expects him to stray too far into his own burgeoning mythology, and it's a primary point of suspense in the narrative. If God were to pick any one of us to do a job of work, would we know enough to know when to step away from the glory it brought us? Such wisdom might have less to do with strength of character than with the true, and underappreciated, part of faith that calls for simple surrender. As a character in Zeffirelli's film had it, "We are so concerned with Original Sin that we sometimes forget about original innocence."

Belber hasn't forgotten it, though; it saturates the play. Duff may not understand what he's doing, or why he's doing it, but he has trust enough in the authenticity of his own inner directives to look past the immediate threats that his prayers -- so shocking to his colleagues, so infuriating to his boss -- draw down upon him. He's not fired, ostensibly because of the ratings surge his prayers spark, but to what extend to his calm and his acceptance tip the scales in his favor?

All of this is central to the mystery play that "The Power of Duff" essentially is. Belber embraces ambiguity, evokes the profoundly unknowable, and shrugs off the tendency of oppressive religious traditions to impose answers. He asks the kinds of questions that mean something, even independent of whatever answers might actually exist, and in doing so touches on the numinous. Director Peter DuBois puts Belber's hook into the audience with assured skill, and draws us from the realm of the superficial, where the play begins, to the deeper and more mysterious regions Belber wishes us, along with his characters, to end up.

There are plenty of cleverly constructed and well-written plays, but "The Power of Duff" possesses a rare strain of sincerity. That's what gives "Duff" its power to move, and to delight. This well-put-together play is also one more triumph in a theater season that started strong with productions like the A.R.T.'s "All the Way" and the Huntington's own "The Jungle Book," and just seems to be getting better.

"The Power of Duff" continues through Nov. 9 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please visit www.huntingtontheatre.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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