Gentrification, “white flight”, classism, and racism seemingly define how money and people move throughout American cities. A change in population demographics is not an easy or kind process because someone has to be pushed out for another to be let in. Playing at Second Stage Theater, Cardinal casually delivers relevant, powerful insight on how life, in America, moves according to exchanges.
Written by Greg Pierce and directed by Kate Whoriskey, Cardinal begins with a funny exchange between Lydia (Anna Chlumsky) and Jeff (Adam Pally). Chlumsky paints Lydia with an exciting charm that could convince even the most depressed, Jeff, to have hope and, literally, paint the town red. Pally’s Jeff is clearly uncomfortable in his own skin, and garners laughs through his awkwardness but pity through his self-loathing. As the mayor to an Upstate NY city, he is eager to revamp his community, and spark its dying economy/ population. Enter Lydia with her bright idea that even enraptures the audience, but brings about changes that are not welcomed. Yet, are they bad?
Stephen Park and Eugene Young play the charismatic and poignant father-son duo of Lei Wei and Jason Chen. While Jason serves as a sweet, calming character to contrast his hilarious, dominating father, Lei Wei, both show the “benevolence” of what can feel like, business immortality. As they buy out this small-town, and pay its old residents to walk away, you feel as raw as Jeff about whether this is right. It does not feel good to see homely, well-known neighbors move away to live more affordably with their sister. Meanwhile, new faces begin to replace your old bakery, your favorite restaurant, or even your supermarket. Yet, is that bad?
Cardinal is divided between whether it is racism, materialism, or both that stirs gentrification’s “bad taste”. As the, once, white town becomes Chinese, hate crimes rise against Asians, and old residents like Becky Ann Baker’s Nancy do not care that business is booming because everything looks different, which makes it feel different. Baker plays Nancy as generous and open with others, especially those whom are kind to her son, Nat (Alex Hurt). Yet, the growing aesthetics of the hometown that raised her and her son bother her. From her bakery sign to its now, cardinal-red bricks, it is the literal change in the town’s look, potently designed by Drake Mclane, that has left Nancy unwilling to partake in its future. While she admitted the town was economically sinking, she truly wanted for the town to rise as it was, but nothing ever does.
Nothing or no one every grows by staying the same, but Cardinal shows that it is the literal look of things that blocks us from doing things better. I do not know if the Chens are right to takeover this town, or if Jeff is right to resist, especially when all the new residents are, technically, his people. Like Baker, Pally plays Jeff with an overcast of nostalgia, which is why he has such a “ying-yang”, but attractive chemistry with Lydia. Chlumsky shows that Lydia is a woman for the future, and, in being that, she treats the Chinese/ Chens as equals. While Jeff and Nancy may not be stirring hate crimes, they, too, play to benevolently rejecting “newcomers”.
Despite being 90 minutes, Cardinal left me reeling, for hours, in thought. I could not say there was one bad guy or “bad” move. No character was motivated by malice as much as an over-protectiveness over what they knew as love. Thus, it was Lei Wei’s final, off-hand note that left me a bit of peace. In offering a cactus to Nancy, he describes how the plant can survive anything. It made me wonder if, maybe, our unwillingness to grow our community, both demographically and aesthetically, stems from our inability to see that we can survive anything. A home is not defined by its furniture or architecture as much as the love that lived there, and the same thing goes for a town. While we describe love, materially, Cardinal shows it is, ultimately, defined as a spiritual act, which is why it needs to grow. To Buy Tickets To Cardinal Click Here. It plays through February 25. Second Stage Theater Location: 305 W 43rd St, New York, NY 10036