By comparison, the disposition of “Cardinal” is antic, even before it gets out of hand. It’s an amusing twist that Lydia, who means to be a do-gooder, is really a classic carpetbagger, tone deaf to the needs of the town she once did everything she could to escape. (She thanks the struggling voters for listening to her pitch by giving them complimentary copies of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.”) But by the time the plot involves her with a Chinese-American entrepreneur, who swoops in with tour buses and dumpling shops to reap the rewards Lydia hoped would accrue to the town, Mr. Pierce’s concerns have twisted hers into an incomprehensible Möbius strip.
Jeff, too, is dragged down that path, transforming from a sweet underachiever (who once had scurvy) to a vengeful husk — and then back again. The same thing happens to the characters in both subplots. In the one involving the entrepreneur (Stephen Park) and his son (Eugene Young), a benignly comic caricature veers close to bad-guy Orientalism before veering back for a sentimental ending. And in the one involving a bakery owner (Becky Ann Baker) and her autistic son (Alex Hurt), traits and actions fail to jibe, especially as those actions take a hard right turn toward another genre entirely.
The tonal lurching makes “Cardinal” feel whimsical and even a bit aleatory, like a John Cage sonata. Yet I have to believe that a playwright as sophisticated as Mr. Pierce has made these baffling, disruptive choices meaningfully. Though the bakery is cutely called Bread & Buttons, and sells crocheted monkeys and mittens along with the scones, he is not just satirizing small town America, with its hopeless reinvention schemes and hapless part-time politicians. He’s after something larger about the unintended consequences of capitalism on both individuals and societies: meant to be a cure-all, it is too often a comeuppance.
So perhaps we should see “Cardinal” not as a gritty postindustrial drama, like Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” but as a fable; that would certainly explain the way the characters, and not just the town, have been painted in such bright, primary colors. “Cardinal” even has a moral, delivered by Jeff, who is speaking of romance but might as well mean governance: “If you don’t know about something, maybe you shouldn’t mess with it.”
Unfortunately, the production, directed by Kate Whoriskey (who also directed “Sweat”) on a vague, dour set by Derek McLane, does nothing to advance that reading, nor can it smooth the shift in tone that occurs in the last third of the 90-minute play. And though the story wraps up with a pair of lovely scenes that allow the leading actors, especially Ms. Baker, to do their best work, “Cardinal” never achieves the gravity of its worthy aims. Great ideas are not always good ones.