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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Power of Duff

By Evan Henerson

"The power of prayer is deep. The power of ratings is profound." —Scott Zoellner
Josh Stamberg and Eric Ladin (Photo: Michael Lamont)
There are few subjects more eternally ripe for on-stage philosophical card-shuffling than The Test of Faith. Playwright Stephen Belber takes said test and puts it through a spin cycle, giving a human and quite flawed individual the opportunity to embrace a higher power. Or, at the very least, to think about one. That the individual (in question is a hotshot Rochester television anchorman named Duff makes for some entertaining and thought-provoking drama in Belber's The Power of Duff.

Director Peter DuBois is savvy indeed in his choice of Josh Stamberg (like the director, a veteran of past Belber plays) for the title role. The square-jawed Stamberg boasts a newsman's hair, a self-assured grin and the camera-ready brio that suggests a guy who has made it far enough to be a local celebrity, but not so far that he has lost his connection with everyday viewers. Given the occasional unevenness of some of his fellow castmates, Stamberg's work goes a long way toward carrying the play. Save your Simpsons and hiney jokes; without a Duff to be reckoned with, this play would never get- out of neutral.

Located though they are some 333 miles from New York City, Rochesterians might take umbrage at Belber's characterization of the folksiness of their news. Reports of cow deaths, disoriented turkey hunters and the occasional bout of bad weather are interspersed with actual, you know, news. Through it all, Channel 10 co-anchors Charlie Duff and Sue Respell (played by Elizabeth Rodriguez) fight the good fight. Sue is serious to the point of being uptight (at one point she is characterized as being “a cryogenically-frozen Michele Bachmann"). Duff is less so, and he has a lifelong admirer in sports correspondent John Ebbs (Brendan Green), who would probably sacrifice a few fingers off his hand if Duff would ever go out for a beer with him or give him some tips on scoring with the ladies.

The death of Duff's father back in Oregon turns our hero contemplative and he returns to Rochester with a resolve to reconnect with his estranged 16-year-old son Rick (Tanner Buchman). Out of nowhere, the previously nonreligious Duff signs off a broadcast with a prayer in memory of his dead father. A couple of nights later, he prays again on the air. The social media sphere lights up and Duff is first reprimanded by his producer Scott Zoellner (Eric Lade) and later given on-air carte blanche when the anchorman's increasingly practical prayers start achieving tangible and beneficial results. These include donations for improvements to the local prison which Duff and Ebbs — now in activist mode — visit, connecting with a local inmate (Maurice Williams) who could give a rip about Duff's prayers or whatever social goodness they seem to inspire. The same severe gray set (designed by Clint Ramos) contains both the prison and the news desk and accommodates Aaron Rhyne's projections.

Where is all this headed? Why, due south, of course. Prophets, be they authentic or faux, seldom retain their initial popularity especially when the miracles start to dry up. Instead of becoming insufferable, however, our man Duff seems to become more compassionately human both the higher he ascends and the lower he plummets.

Through Duff, the playwright is treading a line between black comedy and some easily digested existential questioning. DuBois and his cast latch onto the tone of the piece and take us right along with it. In Duff and Ebbs, we have a couple of worthy tour guides through this not-so-sunny jaunt through life. Belber's surrounding characters are more problematic and a couple of the key players seem to be chafing against their limitations. Rodriguez can't bring Sue much further beyond clenched teeth resentment and Buchanan's perpetually pissed-off Rick does not seem to have a lot of depth beyond rage. By contrast, Griffin's doofusy sportscaster evolves into something a lot more interesting as The Power of Duff heads for its catharsis.

Because a catharsis is most certainly in the offing, and our still uncertain hero will choose righteousness.. We may still be in tiny little Rochester where audiences won't climb into the millions, but as Belber sees it, every community needs a touchstone. Stamberg brings that touchstone home. In Duff we trust.

The Power of Duff by Stephen Belber
Directed by Peter DuBois

Cast: Tanner Buchanan, Brendan Griffin, Eric Ladin, Joe Paulik, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Josh Stamberg and Maurice Williams
Set Design: Clint Ramos
Costume Design: Bobby Frederick Tilley II
Lighting Design: Rui Rita
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne
Production Stage Manager: Kyra Hansen
Assistant Stage Manager: Michael Vitale
Casting: Phyllis Schuringa
Plays through May 17, 2015 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, (310) 208-5454,
Running time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, including one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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