Anchor struggles to connect in ‘The Power of Duff’

Ben Cole, David Wilson Barnes, and Jennifer Westfeldt in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Stephen Belber's The Power of Duff. Photo T. Charles Erickson

Ben Cole, David Wilson Barnes, and Jennifer Westfeldt in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Stephen Belber’s The Power of Duff. Photo T. Charles Erickson

BOSTON — At a time when it seems we’re always connected — to our smart phone Facebook, Twitter — sometimes, to our shock, we find we’re not really connected at all.
For a Rochester, N.Y.-based TV anchorman named Charlie Duff, it took an event like the death of his father to realize that his life was filled with broken connections.
What Duff does to try and restore those connections is at the heart of the Huntington Theatre’s production of Stephen Belber‘s “The Power of Duff,” now at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 9.
The connection between a TV news anchor and his audience has been explored before — most notably in Paddy Chayevsky’s searing 1976 film satire “Network,” in which Peter Finch copped an Oscar as the stark-raving mad anchorman Howard Beale, who successfully urged viewers to get up and run to their windows to say “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Charlie Duff (David Wilson Barnes) is anything but the detached madman that Finch was — it’s steady as she goes. He’s a hale fellow well-meant and well-liked by co-workers.
But it’s funny. After returning from his father’s funeral, he realizes doesn’t know that wacky sportscaster John Ebbs (Brendan Griffin), who he’s known for six years, is often quite depressed, and he doesn’t know — or doesn’t remember — that his earnest co-anchor Sue Raspell (an excellent Jennifer Westfieldt) is dealing with the stress of having an autistic child.
And it catches everyone by surprise when Charlie, at the end of a newscast, decides his last word will be a prayer for the memory of his father. More surprising because up to that point, Charlie hasn’t admitted to believing in anything but — well, Charlie.
The prayer touches a chord with viewers, and Charlie starts making it a part of every newscast, at first over the objections of his boss, and then
If there was a Belber character I didn’t buy or felt didn’t ring true, it was Ben Cole as Scott Zoellner, Charlie’s boss, Belber’s fault than the actor playing him. Too intense, too young too over-the-top guess I was expecting to see an older, paunchier — dare I say it — worldly-wise Ed Asner or Sam Waterston type running the station.
The furor over the praying anchorman reaches a fever pitch when Charlie prays for the release of a kidnap victim who is eventually released.
Then there’s the poor African immigrant Joseph Andango (Russell G. Jones), who Charlie prays for, eliciting donations to get him the care he needs.
Joe Paulik does some great work as Channel 10 newsman Ron Kirkpatrick, covering lighter-than-air stories with a hilarious sense of the dramatic He also scores as an Google exec seeking to capitalize on Charlie’s fame to do who-knows-what for big bucks. transferring his spiritual success to the digital world.
But Charlie’s powers don’t, unfortunately, extend to his family relationships. Charlie’s son Ricky (Noah Galvin) doesn’t want anything much to do with the father who has been largely absent , and ex-wife Lisa (Amy Pietz) doesn’t want Charlie’s spiritual aid.
“Don’t pray for me,” she tells Charley at one point. “I don’t want to be part of your circus.”
Of course, as the stakes are raised and people come to expect more of Charlie and his prayers, problems arise.
A digression. For we longtime fans of “The Simpsons,” just the mention of the word Duff brings to mind the fictional beer that is the beverage of choice for Homer Simpson.
For just a moment, I believed “The Power of Duff” was an ode to Homer Simpson’s favorite beer.
The design elements of “Duff” are outstanding. The ersatz news segments are convincingly staged, using the talents of a cadre of local actors, including a hilarious cameo by Richard Snee as a professor.
Aaron Rhyne’s projection design is top-notch, with realistic news graphics, dazzling projections, including a spectacular scene with a huge multitude of screens behind him.
The entire package — Director Peter DuBois and the cast and designers — have made Belber’s work the best it can be.
“The Power of Duff” is a whimsical piece, funny and poignant, and will leave you thinking about how well you’re connecting with the important people in your life.
The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Stephen Belber’s “The Power of Duff,” through Nov. 9 at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts. Directed by Peter DuBois. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by