I keep hoping for transformative theatrical moments at Westwood’s inviting Geffen Playhouse. Sadly they are few and far between. There is no doubt that playwright Stephen Belber thinks he has penned such a piece with “The Power of Duff.” Billed as thought-provoking and witty, it is the story of a vapid news anchor at a local station in Rochester, N.Y. Think KTLA Lite, but not the HBO series “Newsroom.” Charlie Duff is no Will MacAvoy, and Josh Stamberg is no Jeff Davis.
Charlie has just returned from his father’s funeral. He closes the 11 o’clock nightly broadcast with an unscripted prayer for his father leaving his less vapid co-anchor, Sue Raspell (Elizabeth Rodriguez) aghast, the news hour’s goofy sports guy, John Ebbs (Brendan Griffin) excited, and their slick boss, Scott Zoellner (Eric Ladin) a platform to deliver a less-than-heartfelt lecture on the sanctity of journalism and its independence from religion. Now Charlie is no Bible-preaching moralist. His square-jawed good looks have paved the way for multiple affairs that have trashed his marriage. His now 16-year-old son has refused to speak with him for two years. He cannot recall the back-story of any of his co-workers. None of that is bothering him too much, but he is feeling a trifle guilty about his distant relationship with his now dead father and with his own son. He is as bewildered as any of the others as to where his religious outburst has come from.
Do not forget folks, for better or worse, this is the age of social media. The Twitterverse is abuzz with similarly lightweight thinkers. Out of the same nowhere Charlie spontaneously adds prayerful finishes to subsequent broadcasts. Of course the “likes” start piling up on the newscast’s Facebook site. Zoeliner, who never impressed us with his sincerity, vacillates between suspending Duff and crowning him when his prayers turn to the subjects on the news, a kidnapped little girl is spontaneously released in a Walmart parking lot, and ratings soar.
Belber claims he does not “have much interest in writing a play about religion. However ‘faith’ and ‘spirituality’ are of interest …” It is a fine point but “Duff” hardly raises it. The best acting, and writing, in this two-hour-15-minute production are from two minor characters, Charlie’s 16-year-old son, Ricky (Tanner Buchanan), and a prisoner, Casey (Maurice Williams) who was first a subject in a news story that did not interest Charlie much, then was healed by Charlie’s prayers after a near deadly prison beating. Buchanan has the precise edge of adolescent resentment of a parent and certainty about the truth of his opinions and observations. Casey is a more complicated figure. Nineteen years old, he is behind bars for a murder he committed in the course of a robbery. Williams is so convincing as a street-wise, but strangely innocent criminal — a victim as much as the boy he murdered — it is no effort to suspend disbelief.
Mildly entertaining, but neither genuinely thought-provoking nor very funny, “Duff” comes closer to its dictionary definition: “a flour pudding boiled or steamed in a cloth bag.” It is probably sweet enough to eat at the end of a meal, but definitely not memorable except, perhaps, so that you avoid ordering it again.