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Review: In ‘Public Servant,’ a Changed Daughter Returns From College


Hannah loves her father, but that doesn’t mean she won’t lie right to his face. Home from college on an impromptu visit, she pops by his office and hits him up for cash: $450 to pay off her pile of parking tickets.

“It’s a corrupt system!” she insists, starting in on a self-righteous rant. “There’s already nowhere to park, and when there’s a freakin’ basketball game on campus, there’s really nowhere to park!”

It’s a pretty good fake-out. The money is for an abortion, actually, but in Bekah Brunstetter’s “Public Servant,” Hannah is 19 and scared. As much as her dad, Ed, loves her back, she can’t imagine him understanding. A small-town businessman recently elected county commissioner, he doesn’t believe in abortion.

Directed by Geordie Broadwater for Theater Breaking Through Barriers, “Public Servant” is the second part of a trilogy that started with Ms. Brunstetter’s “The Cake,” a heart-tugging gay-marriage comedy that had an Off Broadway run this spring. The new play is about parenthood, paternalism and what it means to work for the people.

Both set in North Carolina, the two shows don’t share characters, but they do share a conundrum. In each, a liberal young woman who was raised to be deeply conservative returns to her hometown, where the people dearest to her would deprive her of her rights. Is there a way for them to remain in one another’s lives and be honest about who they are?

“The Cake,” though, is a more polished and organic work than “Public Servant,” whose plot and dialogue can seem forced.

When Miriam (Christine Bruno), a tetchy newcomer to the town, demands that Ed (Chris Henry Coffey) help clear some government hurdles to selling her dead mother’s house, the two become adversaries. So far, so good.

But Miriam and Hannah (Anna Lentz) abruptly become friends. It’s a development so out-of-nowhere that it feels like a chunk of the script has gone missing. One of the loveliest, warmest scenes is between these two, late in the play; it’s just not at all credible that they would have arrived there.

Miriam is a teacher in her early 40s trying hard to conceive a child, and there’s meant to be something maternal in her soft spot for Hannah — whose own mother, tormented by bipolar disorder, is not a helpful presence in her life. Psychologically, their relationship could make sense. Dramaturgically, it feels engineered.

So do various moments involving Miriam’s cerebral palsy: not the wordless opening scene, where she slowly hauls her small frame up some stairs, but the times when Ed and Hannah clumsily betray their ignorance — exchanges that come across as blatantly didactic.

It’s a handsome production, though, on a clever picket-fence set by Edward T. Morris at Theater Row’s Theater Five (until very recently known as the Clurman). And like “The Cake,” “Public Servant” is civic-minded.

“The job of the government,” Hannah says, trying to nudge her father toward an awakening, “is to, to ‘promote the general welfare.’”

It’s kind of nice, really, that Heidi Schreck’s play has some company in quoting the Constitution. But the politics here feel primary, with the play grafted to fit.

Public Servant

Through June 29 at Theater Row, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, tbtb.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.



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