No, The Power of Duff Is Not About Homer Simpson (But You Should See It Anyway)

Josh Stamberg, Eric Ladin, Brendan Griffin and Elizabeth Rodriguez
Josh Stamberg, Eric Ladin, Brendan Griffin and Elizabeth Rodriguez
Photo: Michael Lamont

Though the title of Stephen Belber’s play might sound like Homer Simpson praising his favorite beer, it actually refers to Charlie Duff (Josh Stamberg), an upstate New York news anchor who begins praying on air and incites quite a pandemonium in Belber’s thoughtful and earnest exploration of our collective yearning for something larger than ourselves. Duff, who loses his father early on in the piece, decides one night, at the end of the eleven-o-clock local news, to deliver an impromptu prayer to his dad. He catches his co-anchor Sue Raspell (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and sports reporter John Ebbs (Brendan Griffin) off guard, and he really catches hell from his boss at the station, Scott Zoellner (Eric Ladin).

Despite being instructed not to pray on air, Duff continues to explore his newfound spirituality, and when a prayer actually moves local kidnappers to return the girl they abducted to her parents, Duff becomes a messianic figure in the Rochester community. Amidst the social media frenzy, he strives to remain grounded. He also strives to mend fences with his estranged teenage son Ricky (Tanner Buchanan), trying to unwind their screwed up past. The more he prays, the more Duff becomes charitable in spirit, leading him to reach out to Sue and John about their personal issues, as well as to Casey (Maurice Williams), a local prison inmate whose story becomes inextricably intertwined with Duff’s as the play progresses.

Brendan Griffin, Josh Stamberg and Maurice Williams
Brendan Griffin, Josh Stamberg and Maurice Williams
Photo: Michael Lamont

In that progression are a number of scene changes, facilitated by Clint Ramos' versatile white brick set, which provides a perfect canvas for Aaron Rhyne’s massive wallpaper-like projections. Rhyne’s video graphics, along with Rui Rita’s slick lighting and M.L. Dogg’s atmospheric sound, also make for a lifelike newsroom complete with a “live” feed from field reporter Ron Fitzpatrick (Joe Paulik). Director Peter DuBois orchestrates the transitions with precise blocking that wastes no movement, and he’s equally skillful in helping the actors shape the emotional journey of the piece.

Stamberg, looking like a cross between Mad Men’s Don Draper and The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy, is earnest and relatable in his desire for graciousness. Griffin provides profanity-laden, frat boy-style comic relief, yet he reveals tender vulnerability when called for. Rodriguez is a spunky adversary who keeps Stamberg’s Duff in check, but the script leaves us wanting a bit more of her character’s story in the piece. Ladin is Machiavellian to the core, by turns snarky and slippery, while Paulik’s cheesy local news shtick lands consistently.

Josh Stamberg
Josh Stamberg
Photo: Michael Lamont

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Towards the end of the piece, Duff is told, “People need the brokenness of the world explained to them in a humanistic way.” Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what Belber’s play does for its audience.

GO! Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; through May 17. (310) 208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com 


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Geffen Playhouse

10886 Le Conte Ave.
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310-208-5454

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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