Staging Connections: Stephen Belber on The Power of Duff

Stephen Belber is an acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, and film director. His plays include his breakout hit Tape starring Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke, his Broadway debut Match directed by the Huntington's former Artistic Director Nicholas Martin and starring Frank Langella, the Huntington premiere Carol Mulroney, and others. Over the summer, he corresponded with dramaturg Charles Haugland about the origins of his latest play and the challenges of staging a story about faith.

CH: When did you start writing The Power of Duff? What was the spark?

SB: I first wrote this piece as a screenplay in about 2006. The initial impulse came after reading a Time magazine article (in an issue dedicated to religion in America), which stated that 19 out of 20 Americans believe in God. And while that didn’t necessarily surprise me, it was somewhat eye-opening the more I thought about it.

And so then I thought: this is something that should be written about if done in a non-obvious way, because here we have the vast majority of an enormous nation believing, at the very least, in the legitimacy of a true spiritual force, and wouldn’t it be interesting to create a character that taps into or in some way comes to harness that power in a simple but surprising and unique way. Additionally, I thought, what if this character stumbles into this situation accidentally and honestly, and what if he or she was deeply flawed and susceptible to non-saintly impulses.

Have you written about faith or prayer before? What attracted you to this theme? (And why are there so few plays on that subject?)

Tim Ransom & Ana Reeder in Carol Mulroney at the Huntington. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

No. And even though one would think this an obvious topic on which to write, there’s probably a slight taboo around it due to its being difficult to come at in a way that’s profound but subtle. With The Power of Duff, I’ve simply tried to ask questions that most humans ask at one point or another: how can I feel more connected, what’s the best way to be human, faith in what? I’m under no illusion of having answers, I’ve simply asked in as honest (and theatrical) a way as I know how, trying to place my character in complicated situations with no easy solutions, and in so doing hopefully dramatizing simple questions of faith.

Many of the plays you are best known for have small casts and are tense and concentrated. What attracted you to telling this story that plays on a broader canvas across a larger ensemble?

To begin with, I had for some time been wanting to write a more sprawling play. That, combined with the fact that this story began as a screenplay, encouraged me to expand the size of the cast to fit the scope of the story. Faith is a big topic, but so is the idea of connection, and I was intrigued by the idea of a wholly disconnected individual alone on an enormous and barren stage, and then, to juxtapose that with the same character surrounded by a multitude of people — and yet still unable to connect. This latter stage picture seemed to me an apt representation of “society” in many ways: we are sometimes most alone when plopped down amidst the world.

What drew you to set the play within the stinging (and often very funny) politics of a newsroom?

I think I was looking for a character that could be very palpably stuck, and somehow the idea of an anchor at a mid-sized city’s local news desk fit the bill. Not that it’s an unfulfilling job, but Charlie Duff, at this juncture in his life, has hit a complete dead end — he is someone who never made it nationally, who is no longer inspired by journalistic glory or integrity, and is successful but in a severely limited way. His is a road of seductive mediocrity that leads to either pompous self-regard or extreme yearning and existential woe.

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