Bekah Brunstetter’s new play, Public Servant, has its heart in the right place. It shares with The Cake, seen earlier this year at Manhattan Theatre Club, the first part of a trilogy with the new play, a similar theme: private issues of public figures, with both plays set in North Carolina where the author hails from. Like Della in The Cake, Ed in Public Servant is a well-meaning man whose personal beliefs do not always agree with all members of the community – including his own college-age daughter. Unfortunately, Public Servant has many of the same problems and drawbacks that marred The Cake.
Structured in 14 scenes, the play has 13 scene changes of seven sets which suggest that it is not a stage play at all but a film or television script. While Edward T. Morris’ multiple sets which swing out of a white picket fence (reputedly typical of North Carolina suburbs) are attractive in themselves, the need for so many changes is both awkward and distracting. Like The Cake which alternated between three elaborate sets, Public Servant attempts to combine two separate and unconnected stories, twisting the play out of shape in order to join them.
Ed Sink, who runs a family owned furniture store business, has recently been elected to town commissioner on a platform of reform. He is well-meaning and hardworking. Into his office walks Miriam Hart, an out-of-town visitor, who is trying to sell her late mother’s house but as a new beltway is scheduled to be built directly behind it, finds that it is suddenly worthless as a property. As she and her husband need the money for more fertility treatments in order to conceive a much desired child, they very much need the settlement. Miriam wants Ed to find out if she can get some compensation for the decline in the property value which is actually a function of the Department of Transportation.
At the same time, Ed’s 19-year-old daughter Hannah arrives home early from college, days ahead of her July 4th expected date. She claims to need money for parking tickets she has amassed near campus but, in fact, she is pregnant and wants an abortion. As neither of her parents approve of the procedure, Hannah has decided to go about it without them. Literally bumping into Miriam, who has trouble walking stairs due to cerebral palsy, Hannah gets to know her and asks her help in making the appointment.
The two stories not only seem unrelated but it is rather contrived that Miriam, so angry with Ed for not working fast enough to aid her problem, should end up being the support system for his daughter. The play attempts to make Ed a good guy working for Miriam while ultimately being supportive of his daughter’s choice when he finally discovers what she had done. Ironically, little is done with the irony that while Hannah wants to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy, Miriam would do anything in order to get pregnant though it does not seem to be in the cards for her and her husband.
Commissioned by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, which is dedicated to advancing the work of theater people with disabilities, the play is to be complimented for giving work to actors who might be marginalized but without the story being solely about those issues but making it part of the lives of the characters. This play, however, seems to be several separate stories which have been shoehorned together.
Under Geordie Broadwater’s direction, the play has two false endings before the final scene, a problem that should have been worked out in rehearsal. While the ending is emotionally satisfying, it does not seem entirely realistic or believable. The play also has a few too many phone calls played by the onstage actors with their backs to the audience as unseen characters, from Ed’s estranged wife to Miriam’s husband to Ed’s fellow commissioners. With only three in the cast, this is one play that would have been better served by more actors and more characters.
Nevertheless, the cast is quite engaging and sympathetic. In the central and tricky role of Commissioner Ed Sink, Chris Henry Coffey is both personable and conflicted both as a public servant and in his private life. He makes him a more three-dimensional character than as written. Christine Bruno, who herself has cerebral palsy, makes Miriam’s problems, both financial and medical quite real, while reminding us that people with disabilities want to be treated like everyone else. As 19-year-old Hannah, Anna Lentz, making her Off Broadway debut, is a quite believable teenager, opinionated and feisty, but desperately wanting the love and approval of her parents.
Costume designer Courtney E. Butt is to be commended for putting her cast in multiple outfits considering several days go by, unlike many recent New York productions. Roni Sipp has done yeoman service with the many props that are needed to tell the story. The sound design of Sam Crawford is mainly the ringing of telephones for the many calls that occur in the course of the 95-minute play.
Bekah Burnstetter’s Public Servant is an interesting attempt to tell the story of an elected official’s trying to do his job while not being able to please everyone with whatever decision he makes. While the play fulfills its function to create a role for an actor with disabilities, it seems a bit muddled in trying to combine too many stories.
Public Servant (through June 29, 2019)
Theater Breaking Through Barriers
Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes without an intermission