"Religion is the neglected and deluded stepchild of logic and reason," character Scott Zoellner, a news director, explains in a critical scene in Stephen Belber's "The Power of Duff." A local production of the play - directed by Peter DuBois for Boston's Huntington Theatre Company - deftly explores the role of religion and spirituality in ostensibly secular America.
"The Power of Duff" tells the story of Charles Duff (David Wilson Barnes), an anchor at Channel 10 News in Rochester, New York. After his father's funeral, Duff returns to work and improvises a prayer on one of his live broadcasts - to the delight of many viewers and the horror of his boss and fellow journalists, who blast him for his lack of journalistic integrity. Duff, however, continues to ad-lib prayers each night, creating a great change in his community and transforming him into a Christ-like figure. Although the play contains hints of darker material, it avoids a predictable collapse into tragedy. In fact, the first act is comedic and light, while the second act clings hopefully to optimism and the power of community in the face of sorrow and failure.
It's easy to question the relevance of a play focused on a television news channel in the age of the Internet. Yet modern issues dominate Belber's work: gentrification, homosexuality, marital and familial issues and the role of religion in contemporary society. Belber's play is reminiscent of "Network" (1976), Paddy Chayefsky's stunningly prescient film about a crazed news anchor who is exploited for ratings, revealing the insanity of American media. Indeed, once word spreads about Duff's religious work, others try to take advantage of him for their own profit. Belber even incorporates a scene where Duff is flown to a meeting with a Google executive to discuss a future crusade into Africa - highlighting the exploitative consumerism that can go hand-in-hand with religion.
DuBois' direction is seamless and effective - there are no wasted moments and no blackouts between scenes. Rapid and energetic set changes swirl around actors as they walk into new scenes, while they simultaneously change clothes and pick up a prop or two. The eight-actor ensemble cast, despite its large size, is also impressive. Most notably, the cast is able to generate the suspense and thrill of on-air presentations. The improvisatory nature of Duff's prayers and the response of his fellow newscasters are both convincing and powerful, furthering the authenticity of the performance.
While Belber's characters initially appear one dimensional and stereotypical, careful and expert characterization allows each to grow into a complex personality. Barnes presents a polished and insincere facade that's completely believable. At the office and with his family, we see only the shell of a proud and masculine man. It's not until he faces his own isolation that we begin to notice cracks in his personality. Barnes brilliantly reveals these flaws as he struggles to get closer to his alienated wife and son. Amy Pietz, who plays his ex-wife Lisa, brings a fiery maternal force to her character, refusing to let Duff get away with neglecting her and their son. The real treasure, though, is Brendan Griffin, who plays Duff's coworker, John Ebbs. Although he acts like a garish goofball on and off the air, Ebbs is actually profoundly depressed. Through his character, Griffin is able to truly delve into the dichotomies of depression and find relief in the human connection he longs for - which may just be the communal religion that Duff is advocating.
The astonishing set, designed by David Rockwell, includes a news desk and many television screens. These TVs are imaginatively used throughout the production, both as the background for the news program and also to represent windows, weather, breaking glass and tall ceilings. But several realistic and detailed set pieces, such as Duff's father's kitchen and Puff's own living room, seem unnecessary and out-of-place. Moreover, the costumes strike a discordant note - they appear dated and stale, like a poor attempt to capture the style of "Mad Men" (2007-present) and the glory of media during that era.
Belber wrote "The Power of Duff" after reading a statistic in Time Magazine that stated 95 percent of Americans believe in God. Touching upon religion in American art is risky, but Belber does so with ease, casually increasing the discourse without imposing personal beliefs. Indeed, his protagonist avoids preaching morals and lessons, instead asking that religion manifest itself in meaningful human connection and community support. In this era, religion is often considered ineffectual or irrelevant, but, as a new wave of "atheist spirituality" rises, many intellectuals are exploring what role connectedness, integrity and mindfulness can play in people's lives. "The Power of Duff" calls for reflection on how modern-day religion - however that may be defined - can fit into media, daily routines and even art.
Anonymous NBA general manager admits to tanking
An NBA general manager has finally admitted to tanking. Sort of. In a piece for ESPN The Magazine, an anonymous GM explained his strategy for punting this season in order to acquire a high draft pick. You already know the logic behind stripping down a roster, but you’ve likely never heard it honestly articulated by someone in the middle of that process:
Our team isn’t good enough to win and we know it. So this season we want to develop and evaluate our young players, let them learn from their mistakes —and get us in position to grab a great player. The best way for us to do that is to lose a lot of games. This draft is loaded. There are potential All-Stars at the top, maybe even franchise changers. Sometimes my job is to understand the value of losing.
We’re not alone. Look at the 76ers. Since the draft in June, I don’t think they’ve signed a player or made a trade to add a legitimate player. A bunch of us realize that our teams aren’t good enough talentwise to do anything. You’re going to be bad. There’s no way around it. And even if you finish 0-82, there’s still a 75 percent chance you don’t get the No. 1 pick. We’re just going to take our lumps and hope our number gets called.
Who could the GM be? Clearly it’s not Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers, It’s likely not Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics, either, unless he’s completely backtracking on everything he’s been saying leading up to the season. It’s also probably not the Charlotte Bobcats’ Rich Cho, since for the first time in years Charlotte intentionally added experience when they signed Al Jefferson.
It could be Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, who recently traded starting center Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards for a first round draft pick and an injured player (Emeka Okafor) who might never play a game for Phoenix. The anonymous GM mentions trading away veterans for picks and young players, and that’s exactly what McDonough has done with Gortat, Jared Dudley and Luis Scola. The Suns might wind up with four first round picks in the 2014 draft.
Another possibility is Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, though most of his moves came in the summer of 2012 and the multi-year deal given to Jameer Nelson that offseason doesn’t exactly fit with the plan that this anonymous GM is talking about.
It might also be Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, though he has publicly stated that tanking is not his intention. The Jazz declined to bring back veterans Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Randy Foye and Mo Williams this season, instead opting to see how ready their young guys are and clear up their salary cap situation.