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Stephen Belber Offers Up A 21st Century Prayer At BCA

David Wilson Barnes as Charles Duff stands in front of his TV station's bank of monitors. (T. Charles Erickson)

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Let us pray.

Are there three more divisive words in this divisive country? To some they represent a bond with their maker, often a plea to Him (in most prayers) or Her to intercede in human events. To overcome illness. To win the football game.

To others public prayer is an unwelcome attempt to blend church and state or to show off a holier than thou attitude, to summon up a God who, events and tests pretty much demonstrate, has little interest in prayers for overcoming illness or winning football games.

But what if there’s a third path of public prayer, a means of bonding with each other to escape the calls to egotism and materialism that seemingly shout at us from every nook and cranny of Western culture.

That’s the idea that American playwright Stephen Belber cleverly plays with in the Huntington Theatre Company’s “The Power of Duff” at the Boston Center for the Arts (through Nov. 9). It’s an engaging production even if there are second-act bumps along the way to neo-nirvana.

Duff is Charles Duff (David Wilson Barnes), a veteran Rochester anchorman for the third-rated station. He had once hoped to be the next Dan Rather, only better, but is now ensconced in a smaller-market Channel 10 with the usual complement of beautiful co-anchor (Jennifer Westfeldt), in-your-face sports guy (Brendan Griffin), oddball roving reporter (Joe Paulik) and grotesquely self-absorbed news director (Ben Cole).

News director Scott Zoellner (Ben Cole) confronts Charles Duff (David Wilson Barnes) while coanchor Sue Raspell (Jennifer Westfeldt) takes a wary look at things. (T. Charles Erickson)

News director Scott Zoellner (Ben Cole) confronts Charles Duff (David Wilson Barnes) while coanchor Sue Raspell (Jennifer Westfeldt) takes a wary look at things. (T. Charles Erickson)

It could be any-city USA as the Action News format it brandishes has usurped once-serious (in Boston, anyway) TV journalistic enterprises. Human enterprise stories and gimmicks are paramount, so when Duff comes back from his father’s funeral and signs off with a special plea it seems par for the tabloid-TV course. After his usual “Have a safe and happy night,” he offers a prayer that his father is now free from pain in a better place.

Duff isn’t religious and has no idea why he did it or why he can’t stop doing it, but each prayer goes increasingly viral, particularly after he raises money through one of them to pay for the health insurance of an African immigrant with AIDS whose policy had been canceled when he was laid off.

Belber (“Tape,” “Match,” “Carol Mulroney”) crafts a captivating first act with help from Barnes’s depiction of the perfect modern local anchorman, where the dividing line between cool and vapid is almost undetectable. (We’re talking a supposedly non-partisan newscast, not Fox or MSNBC). He can deflect any attempt at emotional engagement with a glib one-liner or even a raised eyebrow or sound effect).

What’s most intriguing about the play, though, is that Belber is after something more tangible than whether God intercedes in human affairs through prayer. He’s really asking, what does it take to connect people to each other in these disconnected times. That has really become the theatrical issue of the day — you can say something similar about “Water by the Spoonful” at the Lyric Stage Company or “Splendor” by Company One.

Russell G. Jones as Joseph Andango shares his thoughts with Duff. (T. Charles Erickson)

Russell G. Jones as Joseph Andango shares his thoughts with Duff. (T. Charles Erickson)

Belber attacks the issue with uncommon grace, so to speak. The power of prayer that Duff is tapping into is a mystery and Joseph Andango, the immigrant, tells him that some people are chosen by who knows what force to be shamans and he might as well go with the mystical flow.

This force, whatever it is, has transformed Duff, who now genuinely wants to connect to people in his life, particularly the ex-wife and son who had been roadkill on his attempted road to Ratherville. It’s a heartfelt attempt and even the way his coworkers respond makes for a very moving first act.

The second act takes a more Disney/Hollywood arc and if you’re planning to see the show you might stop here.

Everything becomes simultaneously more predictable and outrageous, which would seem to be a contradiction but apparently isn’t. The power of his prayer goes into more melodramatic territory and Belber’s depiction of the news industry, particularly CNN, and other forces playing on Duff, like Google, become silly caricatures of 21st century life. That’s particularly disappointing given how well he captured local news in the first act.

The play does right itself by the end, though to my mind Belber only gets back to where he was at the end of the first act, albeit in a more spelled-out, crowd-pleasing manner.

Huntington head Peter DuBois does a great job directing the material, getting a first-class job from the cast, including Westfeldt, whose boyfriend Jon Hamm certainly had a better time at the Calderwood Pavilion than he would have had at Fenway Park rooting for the Cardinals Wednesday night.

DuBois’ design team is also in fine form, particularly Aaron Rhyne and his exquisite TV monitors. Belber could have dug a little deeper in this play, but where he goes is totally in the right direction, showing what the power of live theater can be.

Stronger than the power of prayer?

These days, let us be thankful for any connective tissue.

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Here’s how DuBois and the cast see the play and production: