There were reasons to have faith in “Grace,” a play about the downside of faith and the mystery of grace. Its stellar four-member cast includes Paul Rudd and Ed Asner, two performers whose presence implicitly promises laughs and endearment. It marks the Broadway debut of playwright Craig Wright, a onetime writer for such intriguing TV series as “Six Feet Under” and “Lost,” whose best-known stage play, a quirky and frenetic comedy entitled “Mistakes Were Made,” was presented recently at Barrow Street Theater starring Michael Shannon, a sizzling performer who is also in “Grace.”
But by the end of “Grace,” which is also the beginning of “Grace” (I’ll explain that later), I had absorbed what seems to be one of the major messages in the play: Having faith can set you up for disappointment. That also, unfortunately, is one of the messages I took home about the play.
Steve and Sara (Rudd and Kate Arrington) are a married couple who recently moved from Minnesota to Florida, in pursuit of a business deal. The couple are Christians with a capital C – they met in church; Steve’s usual exclamation is “Dog,” which he employs as a preferable alternative to uttering the Lord’s name in vain. The deal for which Steve is promised funding is a chain of gospel-themed hotels. He wants to call them Crossroads Inns. She doesn’t like that name. He suggests some alternatives: The Upper Rooms, The New RESTament, The Jew Drop Inn? Steve is mostly joking here, but he is serious that he wants his hotels to answer the question: Where would Jesus stay?
A Mr. Himmelman from Zurich has promised to wire Steve nine million dollars for their first hotel.
As they wait for the money, they run into two people who have lost any faith they may once have had. Steve engages both of these characters in conversation that is a thinly veiled effort at proselytizing. Karl (Asner), who is an exterminator hired for the apartment complex, reveals that his wife is dying of cancer. When a child growing up in Nazi Germany, his family tried to protect Jewish friends, with tragic results. He dismisses Steve and Sara as Jesus Freaks, and says point-blank “There’s no God.” Though Asner is really only in a couple of scenes, it is nice to see such a pro back on Broadway after an absence of a quarter of a century.
Sam (Shannon), the couple’s next-door neighbor, is a scientist for NASA who was involved in a car accident that killed his fiancé and greatly disfigured his face. He too has little use for a divinity. Steve tries to get Sam both to invest in his hotel chain, and to change his mind about the Lord – which, it becomes clear, Steve seems to see as much the same mission. “I’m a believer,” Steve tells Sam. “And that’s what real estate is all about. It’s about faith. It’s about the substance of things not seen.”
Sara too reaches out to Sam — far more effectively, sparking the main plot of the piece.
Michael Shannon is best-known for playing disturbed and disturbing characters – as the paranoid Peter in both the play and movie Bug, the neighbor in “Revolutionary Road” (for which he received an Oscar nomination), the federal agent in “Boardwalk Empire.” That is not the case in “Grace.” There is one scene where he is angrily complaining to customer service about his computer, but it’s played for laughs. In his initial scenes with Arrington, he is rude and angry, but their relationship warms up quickly (Shannon and Arrington are a real-life couple.) Shannon is such a splendid (and familiar) stage actor that it comes as a surprise that “Grace” marks his Broadway debut. What’s most surprising, though, is that he does not play the most intense or off-kilter character. Rudd does.
The casting of Rudd for Steve is something of an inspired choice, since playwright Wright and director Dexter Bullard (Bug, Mistakes Were Made) play with our expectations. Those who know Rudd only for his goofy man-boy characters in Judd Apatow movies will be taken aback by the intensity of his breakdown.
So, why in a play that is so well-acted, by a writer with an intriguing track record, was I disappointed? In a play whose themes include faith, time and space, the author and director focus on playing with all three in the stagecraft. The first scene is also the last scene – the rest of the play is a flashback — but it’s done in reverse, as if a film rewinding. Then, the couple and Sam live in adjoining apartments, but Beowulf Boritt’s set is just one apartment, so the actors can be sitting right next to one another, or face one another, but the characters don’t see each other, because they are in their separate apartments. Finally, and most harmfully, the first scene – which is also the final scene – is a murder-suicide; we see the dead bodies, and then, since this is in reverse, we see them each being shot.
It’s likely that this meta playing around is intended to underscore the themes of Grace. Can we really be saved? Can we be born again – rewind our misfortune with the help of God? Is it the ostentatiously faithful who will be visited by this form of redemption, this grace, or is it more arbitrary? Why is it that people share the same space but can’t seem to connect? In theory, all of this is thought-provoking; Wright, a former seminarian, is ostensibly asking us to ponder humanity and the cosmos. The practical effect of the theatrical gimmicks and the too-pat reversals, however, is to undermine the drama – or, more precisely, to expose how little credibly dramatic or genuinely intellectual is going on in this play.
By Craig Wright
directed by Dexter Bullard
Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by Tif Bullard; Lighting Design by David Weiner; Sound Design by Darron L. West; Make-Up Design by Nan Zabriskie; Associate Scenic Design: Alexis Distler; Associate Costume Design: David Kaley; Associate Lighting Design: Rob Ross; Associate Sound Design: Charles Coes; Assistant Scenic Design: Caite Hevner
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington, Ed Asner
Through Jan. 6. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission.
Grace is scheduled to run through Jan. 6.