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Playwright Greg Pierce explores the plight of a dying factory city in Cardinal
Greg Pierce may be best known as Tony-winning Cabaret composer John Kander's new collaborator since lyricist Fred Ebb died. Together, they've penned a pair of challenging chamber musicals, The Landing and Kid Victory. But even though Pierce worked solo on Cardinal -- his world-premiere play at Second Stage about the efforts to revitalize a hard-up town -- in a way he has Kander to thank for this show, too.
"John lives in the Catskills, so I spent a lot of time working with him in upstate New York around big towns and small cities, some of which are really run-down," Pierce says. It got him thinking: "What is to be done with cities that have fallen on hard times? How do we keep someplace feeling like home for the people who really love it, yet also embrace the change that is inevitable?"
Second Stage had commissioned Pierce to write a play, and he realized that his questions about dying cities dovetailed with the theatre's mission to "tell essential American stories." It also presented a welcome change of pace for the dramatist. "I love writing very small family dramas," he says. "I wanted to work with a slightly bigger cast and I wanted to address some bigger issues than what would happen in a family."
After three years of development, he's debuting Cardinal, in which Lydia (Veep's Anna Chlumsky) returns to her declining home determined to attract tourists by painting the Rust Belt town red -- cardinal red to be exact.
"Why red?" wonders the mayor (Adam Pally from The Mindy Project). "It's sexy," Lydia replies.
The inspiration for the paint job -- for Lydia and Pierce alike -- comes from a city in Morocco called Chefchaouen, where everything is blue. But Lydia's well-meaning proposition kicks off rivalries and unrest, especially when unauthorized bus tours by a Chinese-American entrepreneur (Stephen Park) bring Asian immigrants, causing tension with the town's old-timers. "The play is really about what happens in this community when something very strange and exciting and polarizing happens to them," Pierce says.
The playwright enjoys traveling and the places he's been have helped guide his work. He was visiting Costa Rica when he wrote Slowgirl, which is set in that Central American country. His play Her Requiem takes place near his own hometown of Shelburne, Vermont. So did part of The Landing, which premiered at the Vineyard Theatre starring his uncle, Tony winner David Hyde Pierce. (Their speaking voices are remarkably similar.)
"It's much easier to be really truthful if you write a story based on something that you know really well," Pierce says. Still in Cardinal, as in his previous shows, he leaves the place unnamed "so that it doesn't feel like it's a sort of docudrama."
Cardinal's downtrodden factory town setting may remind theatregoers of the real city of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Lynn Nottage's 2017 Pulitzer-winning play Sweat took place. Intriguingly, Kate Whoriskey directed both plays.
However Pierce believes the similarities end there. "Lynn is a writer I greatly admire, but I see us as telling wildly different stories that happen to both take place in down-and-out cities," he says, though he concedes that "other people analyzing the plays might think they belong together."
But Pierce isn't one to deconstruct his own plays. He tends to follow his instincts when writing. "I'm influenced by Harold Pinter's idea of not mapping out an entire play," he says. "I make sure I'm interested enough in something and then a little ways down the road I think, yes I'm excited enough, I know enough now, there's a play here."
Top image: Anna Chlumsky and Adam Pally in Cardinal. Photos Joan Marcus.