Theater Reviews

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Lucille Lortel Theatre
Through March 8

Lynn Redgrave always has taken a back seat to sister Vanessa. Despite critical acclaim over the past four decades, she has never commanded the level of respect accorded her Oscar-winning sibling.

Maybe that's because she never had a role like the title character in the compellingly dramatic "Grace." Now, going beyond her celebrated performances in "Georgie Girl" and "Gods and Monsters," Redgrave defines utter perfection as a self-obsessed professor whose religious convictions come at a very high price.

As the play opens, the titular Grace is sporting goggles and an electrodes-enhanced helmet, having a sort of religious experience. She's taking part in a scientific test that monitors brain reactions to induced feelings, particularly of a mystical nature. The scene dissolves to one in which Grace is back in her London home, explaining her spectral experience to the play's three other characters: her laid-back husband, Tony (Philip Goodwin), their grown son, Tom (Oscar Isaac), and Tom's no-nonsense fiancee, Ruth (K.K. Moggie).

Once the characters are nicely established, the play gets down to the real business at hand. Grace, an ardent atheist, goes ballistic after learning Tom's secret: He's giving up his legal profession to become an Episcopal priest. When Ruth follows suit with a revelation of her own, a chain of events is set off with shattering ramifications for each of the principals.

The script, penned by Mick Gordon and A.C. Grayling, at first seems relatively straightforward. But that's quickly discounted. Gordon and Grayling incorporate flash-forwards and flashbacks, though viewers won't initially realize that the tale isn't unfolding in a linear manner. Audience members are further tested as an intense amount of verbiage is delivered over the 90-minute running time, demanding total concentration.

Gordon and Grayling exhibit no fear in tackling a slew of heady, diverse subjects, including the debated existence of God, parent-child hostilities, the merits of Judaism vs. Christianity and the true meaning of love. All of that is mixed with film references ranging from "The Matrix" to "A Few Good Men" to "The Sixth Sense" and alternately delivered via high drama, subtle comedy and gut-wrenching sadness. That's no easy feat.

Director Joseph Hardy, marking his return to the New York stage after a 30-year absence, has a knack for making difficult material seem accessible, with one especially tricky segue involving a music-and-dance tableau for the central quartet. It's as clever as it is jarring, comparable only to the kicker that comes near the play's conclusion. That's why audiences can never afford to get comfortable -- or assume they know where things are headed.

Working on an aptly spartan set, the cast is up to the material's demands, with each member getting at least one elongated scene in which to shine. So, just when one thinks Goodwin is quietly stealing the show, Moggie follows with a speech that's unbelievably complex. Isaac also does his share of heavy lifting, providing a nuanced look at a thirtysomething's confusion about the future, perhaps informed by his memorable performance in the summer as the star-crossed hero of the Shakespeare in the Park production of "Romeo and Juliet." Isaac clearly is a star on the rise.

Yet the evening ultimately belongs to Redgrave. She's equally convincing in spotlighting her character's headstrong nature, randy past or tortured psyche. Vulnerable one moment and a virago the next, Redgrave's tour de force is impossible to dismiss. With that caliber of acting folded into such an impressive, consistently challenging production, "Grace" seems downright inspired.

GRACE
Presented by the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation
Credits:
Playwrights: Mick Gordon, AC Grayling
Director: Joseph Hardy
Scenic designer: Tobin Ost
Costume designer: Alejo Vietti
Lighting designer: Matthew Richards
Sound designer: Fabian Obispo
Cast:
Grace: Lynn Redgrave
Tom: Oscar Isaac
Tony: Philip Goodwin
Ruth: K.K. Moggie
Voice of Dr. Michael Persinger: Robert Emmet Lunney
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