The relationship between local TV news anchors and their viewers can attain a kind of intimacy, or pseudo-intimacy, anyway.
But what if an anchor suddenly tested that relationship by ending a newscast not with the ritual signoff but rather with — of all unexpected and unsettling things — a prayer?
Stephen Belber’s seriocomic “The Power of Duff,’’ now at Huntington Theatre Company under the direction of Peter DuBois, explores that what-if scenario and its disruptive, wide-ranging fallout, examining the nature of belief as reflected in the cracked mirror of contemporary media culture.
Although the playwright ultimately bites off more than he can chew, “Duff” still adds up to a smart take on a thorny subject, leavened with an intriguing blend of skepticism and sincerity.
The seams do show in the abrupt tonal shifts as Belber attempts to fuse a satire of TV news, a family drama, and an inquiry into the mysteries of faith, all wrapped around the tale of one man’s bid for personal redemption. (Traces of everything from “Network’’ to “Bruce Almighty’’ to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’’ can be detected in the play’s DNA.) Originally written as a screenplay, “Duff’’ sometimes feels like a play that is still stretching toward its final shape.
Yet Belber makes an honest effort to grapple with the large questions he raises, and brings considerable wit and forcefulness to the enterprise. His spoof of puffy TV features, delivered by an amusingly fatuous reporter (Joe Paulik) is spot-on, and “Duff’’ cleverly includes an appearance by — speaking of omnipotence — a loftily theorizing executive from Google (also played by Paulik).
The title character is Rochester news anchor Charles Duff, well played by David Wilson Barnes. In the TV studio with serious-minded coanchor Sue Raspell (Jennifer Westfeldt, in a fine performance) and goofy sportscaster John Ebbs (Brendan Griffin), Charlie projects an air of detached bemusement. Though he’s a star at the station, there’s a hint that he’s wrestling with those what’s-it-all-mean feelings of emptiness.
Then his father dies. When Charlie returns to work, he does not deliver his ritual end-of-newscast signoff. Instead, he utters a heartfelt prayer for his dad. The result: a flood of supportive e-mails. His blustery boss, played by Ben Cole, demands that he knock it off, but Charlie has touched a deep chord with viewers. Though not a believer in any traditional sense, he’s always been “suspicious,’’ he tells his boss, that there is “Some sort of . . . force. To be reckoned with.’’
Soon Charlie is a force himself. His next prayer touches on the question of loss and the need to “better love the people’’ in our lives. It leads to a storm of viewer approval on Twitter; fans start carrying signs that read: “In Duff We Trust.’’ When Charlie prays for the release of a kidnapped child and the child is set free, the notion starts to take hold that he has a direct pipeline to God. Charlie-inspired acts of good will start to proliferate in the community. A blogger goes so far as to dub him “Jesus of Rochester.’’
After he prays for Joseph Andango (Russell G. Jones), a Nigerian immigrant with AIDS who lost his health insurance when he was laid off from his job as a janitor, donations pour in. It is in Charlie’s interactions with Andango, however, that “Duff’ takes its sharpest detours into mawkish contrivance.
When Charlie’s co-workers start opening up to him, he realizes how little he knew them, how little interest he took in their lives. The lines of communication are blocked, though, when it comes to Charlie’s ex-wife, Lisa (Amy Pietz) and his 15-year-old son, Ricky (Noah Galvin). They haven’t forgotten what a faithless husband and an unreliable father he was. Ricky (who demands to be called Rick) tells Charlie: “It’s incredible, you’re up there up on TV acting like some ‘haunted, reluctant saint,’ and it’s such total [expletive] that it’s a wonder you haven’t been arrested!’’
Is it total (expletive), though? What is Charlie made of, in the end? As he sets out on a bumpy journey to make things right with his family, the question Charlie confronts is pretty much the one we all face at one time or another: Whether he has the power, not to change the world, but to change himself.