Ensconced in a booth at a diner in midtown Manhattan, playwright Stephen Belber is fondly recalling the late-night arguments about faith and spirituality that he regularly engaged in with his religiously diverse group of college roommates, all fellow philosophy majors at Trinity College in Connecticut.
“I loved being in the middle of that mix, on a philosophic level, where every religion has its own biography of God that is worth learning from,” Belber says. “I have always gravitated towards a Virginia Woolf ‘moments of illumination’ kind of spirituality. But what I’ve never wanted to do is deny myself the privilege of getting to know people for whom organized religion is important, and to learn from them and be open to that experience.”
Despite growing up in a household that wasn’t religiously observant and having largely rejected organized religion as an adult, Belber, 46, nevertheless has long been drawn to existential questions about life, death, and the divine.
Indeed, Belber’s new play, “The Power of Duff,” grapples with questions of spirituality and religion and its place in the public sphere. The play began preview performances at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Calderwood Pavilion this weekend and runs through Nov. 9.
In the play, lost soul Charles Duff, a news anchor in Rochester, N.Y., undergoes a dramatic reawakening. For years, he’s been drifting unmoored, detached from his emotions and the world around him, and carrying on affairs. When Duff’s dad passes away unexpectedly, the newsman is shaken to the core. Returning to work, he spontaneously decides to conclude the nightly newscast not with his usual sign-off, but with a prayer and a plea for understanding and connection between people.
At first, his short, nondenominational prayer angers station management, and they threaten to fire him. But when he prays again the next night, Rochester viewers respond enthusiastically, and soon he becomes a national phenomenon.
Initially, his prayers start getting “answered” not by a higher power but by the community, as people are spurred by Duff’s words to new acts of kindness. But when Duff’s praying takes a seemingly miraculous turn, he struggles with what to do with his newfound power, especially as the thing he yearns for most — reconnecting with his ex-wife and estranged teenage son — seems to be slipping away.
The inspiration for Belber’s script came from a magazine article on spirituality and faith. It contained the statistic that 19 out of 20 Americans believe in some form of God. He decided to write a story about a character whose relationship with his own spirituality has always been ambivalent, but is then thrust into a leadership role because of a genuine spiritual awakening.
“So what happens when the world is watching and waiting for something more? What’s the next move from someone who’s shared an honest and truthful moment in a spiritually naked way?” Belber says. “And I think the impulse behind the impulse was my own ambivalent and complicated relationship with anything spiritual and faith-based. I like thinking about these things. But I think I stop short of really examining my own relationship to spirituality. So I thought this would be a cathartic and psychoanalytically interesting way to face that.”
Belber first penned “The Power of Duff” as a screenplay, and in 2005 he sold it to Universal Pictures and producer Marc Platt for a reported $900,000. At first, it appeared to be on the fast track to production as a major Hollywood film. Ron Howard and Russell Crowe were attached as director and star. But it eventually got stuck in development limbo when Crowe and Howard moved to other projects.
Years later, Belber approached Platt about directing “Duff” himself. Platt, who’s also a theater producer, instead suggested that he turn it into a play. Belber relished the idea. “Transforming it into a play I was able to go deeper,” he says.
Its cinematic origins are still in evidence; the production features a wide array of video screens and still and video projections.
“I liked having these two images of a huge screen presence, this guy’s public face as an anchorman, and then a lonely person onstage trying to connect with those around him,” says Belber, whose play “Carol Mulroney” was produced at the Huntington in 2005.
The actress Jennifer Westfeldt, who plays Duff’s fellow news anchor, Sue Raspell, praises Belber’s voice as a writer, his ear for crackling dialogue, and his ability to fuse dramatic and comedic tones — a merging that Westfeldt also had to figure out as the writer-director of the 2011 film “Friends With Kids.”
“He’s grappling with big life questions and trying to do it with humor and pathos, which is difficult to pull off,” says Westfeldt. “I love this idea of somebody who’s an unexpected and reluctant prophet, not knowing really if he believes in anything but inspiring others with his acts. And there’s the domino effect of the other characters in the play responding to the change that is happening in him.”
Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois, who’s directing “Duff” with David Wilson Barnes in the lead role, lauds the play for its “spine-tingling emotional fragility.”
“It really wears its heart on its sleeve in a strangely beautiful way,” he says. “I think the play explores human sentiment without becoming sentimental.”
The play, which received a developmental production last year at New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater season at Vassar College, also raises difficult questions about what Duff should do with his power and what his priorities should be.
“The more power he accumulates, the more distant he seems to become from his son and from the one thing that he actually wants, which is a reconnection on a personal level with this family,” Belber says. “So he’s not sure how to marry public power with personal quest and desire.”
If the stars align, the play could have a future life in New York or even on Broadway. (Platt has contributed some enhancement money for the Huntington production, according to Belber.) Perhaps “Duff” could even come full circle and end up on the big screen. Either way, Belber loves that he’s been given the opportunity to tell the story on stage first.
“It’s corny to say, but theater is church for some people. You can have these spiritually heightened and enlightened moments when you go into a theater,” he says. “I get very moved by the sappy and the existential and the complex, and I like being in a position where I’m jolted — theatrically or dramatically. So if I am able to create a sense of dramatic jolt with this piece, that would be a wonderful thing.”