“I hate politicians!” Miriam emphatically announces as she struggles to negotiate government bureaucracy. All around me in Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre, audience members quietly nodded their heads in agreement. So, why would anyone want to be a politician? In “Public Servant,” the new play by Bekah Brunstetter, County Commissioner Ed Sink explains that he wants to change the world, or at least his small part of it. During his campaign, he pledged to revitalize community services, specifically the local pool. Sink, a genuinely nice guy, is a local small businessman in North Carolina, but once in office, he finds that it’s extremely difficult to follow through on his promises. When Miriam comes to him to get an inspector to sign off on some paperwork, he tries to placate her but does little to help.
Right from the onset, Ed is besieged by complaints and issues. His powerlessness is clearly illustrated by the numerous voice messages that he has received, many from the same constituents. He is exasperated, explaining to his daughter Hannah and to Miriam, who is having trouble selling her deceased mother’s home, how difficult it is to get anything accomplished. Ed even struggles to get the elevator in his own office building repaired.
As a politician, he can do little besides listen, offer suggestions and then look for funding. On top of his frustrations, Sink is having family issues. His daughter Hannah is caught between him and his bipolar wife and the young woman is unable to communicate with either of them.
Although he portrays a politician, Chris Henry Coffey makes it easy to care about Sink. His character is sympathetic, warm, and sincere. Miriam (Christine Bruno) is a strong, capable woman with cerebral palsy which the actress really has. Like Bruno, Miriam will not allow her disease to stop her or define her. In fact, her CP plays a role in the play. Struggling to get her shoes on, she goes barefoot. Miriam is having problems getting pregnant but explains that her problem conceiving has nothing to do with her disease. In her Off-Broadway debut, Anna Lentz plays Hannah, Sink’s insecure 19 year-old daughter.
Directed by Geordie Broadwater for Theater Breaking Through Barriers, “Public Servant” is the second play in a trilogy by Brunstetter (NBC’s “This Is Us.’) Her first play, “The Cake,” deals with gay marriage and a baker who refuses to sell a wedding cake to a homosexual couple.
Off-Broadway needs to be innovative creatively using space and performers. The clever setting is a white “picket” PVC fence that swings open in one section to represent Sink’s office and another section to become his home. The three characters occasionally stand off to the side of the stage with their backs to us, ‘becoming’ other characters. The playwright effectively uses telephone calls and messages to advance the story.
“Public Servant” is a modest play with a happy ending. What begins as a lesson in civics and politicians changes into themes about family, particularly parent-child relationships. Miriam regrets not having gotten to know her mother before leaving her as soon as she was able. Yet she yearns for her own children. Parents lovingly making hard decisions, sometimes even alienating their children but doing it for the right reasons and with all good intentions. It isn’t easy being a politician, but it’s even harder being a parent.
Theater Row - Harold Clurman Theater, 410 W. 42nd St.
Running June 6, 2019 - June 29, 2019