Painting the town red is slang for celebrating in style, but the phrase takes on a decidedly literal meaning in “Cardinal,” a farfetched and muddled play at Second Stage offering little reason to celebrate.
Anna Chlumsky (“Veep,” “You Can’t Take It With You”) stars as Lydia Lensky, a failed band manager who returns to her financially strapped upstate New York hometown and seeks to attract tourists and rejuvenate it by painting the downtown area cardinal red.
Bird-brained? Maybe. If you paint it, they will come.
Unfolding on a spare gray brick set that conveys various locales, the story starts out as a look at the impact of the colorful urban-renewal scheme on various people. That includes Mayor Jeff Torm (Adam Pally), who, like the city, is depressed. He shares complicated history with Lydia.
There are Manhattan father-and-son developers Li-Wei Chen (Stephen Park) and Jason Chen (Eugene Young), who seize Lydia’s idea for their own gain. And there’s locals Nancy Prenchel (a believable Becky Ann Baker, the show’s MVP), who runs a bakery with her mildly autistic adult son, Nat (Alex Hurt).
If you paint it, they will come undone.
Playwright Greg Pierce (the fine“Slowgirl,” the less-fine “Kid Victory,” ) writes witty dialogue, but he forsakes a cardinal rule of storytelling. There needs to be a shred of truth to characters and situations. Too much rings false as “Cardinal” speeds ahead in sitcom-style fast-mo — from Lydia’s motivations to timelines to logic to the ways city governments work. The play's point turns ever murkier as subplots about racial stereotyping, love and sex and generational expectations are briefly touched on.
Directed by Kate Whoriskey (“Sweat,” “Ruined”), actors are mostly in go-big-or-go-home mode. Chlumsky is monochromatic. And pity Pally (“Happy Endings”), who can actually be appealing. But not here, as Jeff jumps up and down like a toddler — not once, but twice. It feels phony, then phonier.
“Cardinal” doesn’t fly.