Witty, Poignant ‘Duff’ Examines the Power of Prayer (4.5 Stars)

‘The Power of Duff’ Written by Stephen Belber; Directed by Peter
DuBois; Produced by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion
at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, through November 9.

Does prayer actually work? That’s the question that theatergoers get to
contemplate during the Huntington Theatre’s engaging and witty two-plus hour
production of Stephen Belber’s “The Power of Duff”, now playing at
the Boston Center for the Arts. Given that it’s a subject that doesn’t lend
itself very well to scientific analysis but is a practice that most earthlings
find themselves engaging in at some point in their lives (willingly or
otherwise), it’s a risky premise that the author, cast and production team
fully invest in and pull off. The play never resorts to cheap sentimentality or
overly broad humor, and that restraint pays huge dividends.

Charlie Duff is a nightly news anchor at the lowest rated local news
station in the spectacularly un-glamorous city of Rochester, NY. Following the
death and funeral of his father (with whom he had spotty visits with in his
declining years), Duff signs off from his newscast with a heartfelt prayer,
much to the horror of his co-anchor, Sue, who is concerned that the station’s
“journalistic integrity” (if you watch any local news, particularly
outside of the Boston market, you’ll understand why it’s in quotation marks) is
being impugned. The reaction of the viewing public, however, is a different
story, as mostly positive emails flood the station’s server, and similar tweets
fill cyberspace, especially after Charlie unapologetically prays again the next
night. This causes his station manager to go ballistic and threaten to fire
Charlie if he doesn’t stop praying – at least until the ratings go through he
roof when he defies him and his prayer request results in a seemingly
otherworldly solution to a crisis that dominates the local news one day.

In addition to the effect Charlie is having on ratings (people tune in for
his prayer signoffs and CNN even picks up the feed at the end of each broadcast
when he actually prays), he is also cultivating a rabid following locally and
on YouTube that believes that Charlie has some form of divine connection, and
that he should be listened to. What makes the premise especially intriguing is
that Charlie isn’t the kind of guy that would normally pray, as he’s not
religious.  But apparently the death of
his Dad has triggered has some sort of a need for a connection with something
or someone other than himself, since he doesn’t seem capable of connecting with
those around him, whether it be colleagues or family. 

His inability to make real human connections is made abundantly clear in one scene where he
makes a call to his ex-wife AFTER the funeral to let her know of his Dad’s (and
his son’s Granddad) passing, and in another where the superficiality of his
relationships with his co-workers is made painfully obvious when it’s revealed that he
doesn’t even know the name of his longtime co-anchor’s husband, or that she has
a child with autism. There is also no evidence of Charlie having any friends,
and he repeatedly rebuffs the station’s sports anchor who always wants to
“go for a beer” (although that may just be good judgment). Charlie’s
relationship with his ex-wife Lisa and son Ricky is the most revealing of his
self-centeredness, at least until he attempts to begin to make up for his
behavior during the marriage (philandering) and after  the divorce (neglecting his son) following
his moment of truth.

Charlie’s spiritual ambivalence is balanced by the other members of the
newsroom. The station manager, Scott,  is
an atheist that has a common sense driven but very jaded view of the world, and
he accurately sums up what even television journalism is supposed to be.
“We’re a news station. We provide information – not solace,” he tells
Charlie following one of his prayers. His co-anchor Sue professes to be very
religious, but that doesn’t seem to be working out very well for her,
particularly in her home life. She and her husband drifted apart when the child
was diagnosed with autism and they don’t communicate anymore, which leaves her
looking for meaning through her “journalism” at the station.

This show is also spot-on in its send-up of the inanity of local news, from
Sue’s pursuit of a “big story” (multiple cow deaths) or roving
reporter Ron Kirkpatrick’s field reports on nudist ice skaters. Sportscaster
John’s sexist and clueless lines also keep the spiritual storyline from getting
too preachy.

There are some very good performances from this solid cast, beginning with
David Wilson Barnes portrayal of Duff, who has accepted his fate as a
newsreader in small time market instead of being taken “seriously” as
a TV journalist in New York, and he is undergoing the usual  “later in life” regrets until his
psychic change. Jennifer Westfeldt (who also played the role opposite Greg
Kinnear in New York last year) is a study in deep-seated unhappiness as
Charlie’s co-anchor; Brendan Griffin grew on me as the energy-drink fueled,
sexually obsessed sportscaster; and Ben Cole brings a repressed anger at life
to his role as the station manager. Joe Paulik shows a nice range in a number
of roles (especially as the Google executive “visionary”), and
Russell G. Jones is sympathetic as the AIDS patient Joseph Andango. But the
most powerful performances come from his ex-wife (Amy Pietz of ‘The
Office’ and ‘Caroline in the City’ fame) and son (Noah Galvin). Despite
the seriocomic nature of the material in most of the play, the pair represent
the serious side of what happens when one’s life is lived so self-centered a
manner, and their rage at Charlie is palpable. 

“Duff” is less about any specific religion or belief system or
even God than it is about the spirit of connectivity that people feel when they
come together and share experiences, good or bad.  You don’t even have to be religious or
spiritual to enjoy it, so I give this a strong recommendation. For more info,