As the Brian Williams scandal suggests, we expect a great deal of our TV news anchors: eloquence, impartiality, polish, charisma, confidence without vanity. In times of disaster, we hang on their words with a childlike trust. Yet our adoration is tinged with condescension: From “Broadcast News” to “Anchorman,” films have built up a stereotype of the anchor as a beautifully groomed but dopey show dog, a genial airheaded cipher, all style and no substance.
Stephen Belber’s play “The Power of Duff,” which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, gives us Charles Duff (Josh Stamberg), a talking head in Rochester, N.Y., who one night spontaneously ends his broadcast with a prayer for his recently dead father. His earnest co-anchor, Sue (Elizabeth Rodriguez), and the goofy sports guy John (Brendan Griffin), are shocked; their craven boss, Scott (Eric Ladin), delivers an astringent lecture on journalistic integrity.
But Scott changes his tune when ratings jump. Duff keeps praying, and uncannily, his prayers work. A kidnapped girl is returned without ransom. A badly beaten prisoner emerges from a coma.
Belber is clearly aware that he is taking on a heavy question with this high-concept plot line about the role of faith in public discourse at a time when Ted Cruz invokes Jesus in his campaign speeches and Tennessee legislators try to make the Bible their state book. It may be even more topical than when “Duff” premiered in 2013 at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. (Peter DuBois, who directed that production, also directs the West Coast premiere at the Geffen.)
Belber’s question seems targeted at those who would react negatively to a praying newsman: Aren’t you being a little closed-minded? His tone is playful, speculative. He’s not trying to offend. In fact, he’s bending over backward not to offend. Duff’s newfound spirituality is nondenominational, as bland and uncontroversial as a greeting card. Anything that might ruffle feathers has been scrupulously picked out of his soothing gospel. We should be nice to one another is the gist of it.
Meanwhile, as the play takes great pains to tell us, Duff himself is not so nice. After an early career disappointment, he settled for phoning it in at Channel 10. The news he reports is pretty lame. Three cows are dead. The downtown Ramada is celebrating its 25th year of existence. The production has fun with the filmed special reports by correspondent Ron Kirkpatrick (the charming Joe Paulik, who also plays a few walk-on roles), reporting live from events such as a nude charity ice-skating ball. But still, as co-anchor Sue keeps reminding Duff, he should take their work more seriously, or at least pay attention to her investigative reports on prison abuse.
Duff, a womanizer, is estranged from his wife and furious teenage son, Ricky (Tanner Buchanan), whom he keeps haranguing for a closer relationship. Duff’s struggle to reconcile his public and private selves is, Belber suggests, a visible example of what all of us must face as we make our places in the world.
The glaring problem with this ambitious and well-intended effort is that Duff is written as a blank. His motivations, his agenda, his doubts and the tenets of his faith all remain opaque; nobody onstage is particularly curious about them, and we’re not supposed to be either. He’s just kind of winging it, complacently, without the anxieties or soul-searching you might think would trouble a fellow who has just learned that he wields a godlike power.
Clint Ramos’ set feels equally underwritten, a cavernous, spare, undistinguished space where different locations are indicated by generic-looking projections.
Stamberg is an appealing actor, and even without a character to play, he gets pretty far on his looks, dry delivery and charismatic grin. As the media storm swirls around Duff, triggering demonstrations by haters and enthusiasts (played by uncredited actors in entertaining if unconvincing video clips), he gazes off into the distance with a quizzical but flinty expression, the John Wayne of on-air prayer. But every once in a while you can see that he wishes he had something meaningful to say.
The play has been substantially rewritten since its first run. The role of Duff’s ex-wife has been reduced to a voice on the telephone; a beaten prisoner, Casey (Maurice Williams), has replaced a Nigerian immigrant with AIDS as someone benefiting from Duff’s divine intervention.
Aware that he needs a second-act crisis that will challenge Duff’s convictions, Belber rather hesitantly offers several sources: The resentment-filled son? The chipper sports guy with the (implausible) dark side? How about a tepid come-on from Sue? Temptation, in the form of a job offer from NBC? What if that prisoner reacted less than gratefully? Yeah, maybe the prisoner. Or how about all of the above?
The volume and interchangeability of plot developments suggest a story in search of something to say. The punchy gimmick -- an anchorman who starts to pray -- could conceivably be spun into a thought-provoking play, but it isn't there yet.
"The Power of Duff," Geffen Playhouse's Gil Cates Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 17. $39-$79. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.