NEW YORK – “I’m not a knower, I’m a believer,” says Steve, the chipper evangelical Christian played by Paul Rudd in Grace. Adopting the same aggressively amiable fervor whether he’s pushing a real estate deal or tub-thumping for the Lord, Steve represents that hazardous distance between faith and reason. That’s one of many complex philosophical issues explored by Craig Wright in his thoughtful 2004 play, given a lean and muscular production by director Dexter Bullard and a high-caliber four-person cast.
Broadway isn’t often the place to ponder big questions, and Wright’s work is loaded with them – the existence of God; the gray zone separating divine intervention from fate, chance and human behavioral choices; religiosity as a guiding principle; the transmutable nature of time and space.
A former Methodist seminarian who writes for television and the stage, the playwright makes this weighty diet palatable and stimulating. His careful consideration of ideas could use sharper teeth, but he opens provocative areas for debate rather than sermonizing or mocking. (In addition to his theater work, Wright has logged writing stints on Six Feet Under, Lost, Brothers & Sisters and Dirty Sexy Money, on which he was also series creator.)
Matching the subtleties of the writing, Bullard has assembled a fine quartet of actors. Alongside Rudd, who shows a darker side than his usual screen persona, the brilliant Michael Shannon makes a searing Broadway debut. The two stars are ably flanked by Steppenwolf regular Kate Arrington and national treasure Ed Asner, undertaking his first New York stage role in almost a quarter-century.
Grace is a difficult play to pin down. Structurally, thematically and in its audacious design concept, this drama tinged with pitch-black comedy takes time to reveal itself, slowly working its way under the audience’s skin. By showing the final scene first, it opens with a device that is both an attention-grabber and a deliberately discomfiting plot spoiler.
Three cast members enter in half-light and take their positions as corpses on the floor. The scene then rewinds to show what has just happened. But the nasty details are less important than the shattered realization of Steve (Rudd) that his perceived contract with God has been broken. The conclusion that comes 100 taut minutes later – and includes more rewind/replay variations – cracks open the window of ambiguity just wide enough to flirt with the possibility of a different outcome, however unlikely.
Sweethearts since Bible class, Steve and his wife Sara (Arrington) have moved from Minnesota to coastal Florida where he spearheads a project to start a chain of Gospel-themed “Sonrise” motels. The sales pitch: “Where would Jesus stay?” Sara supports Steve’s dream, mooning around their charmless apartment to blaring Christian rock. But she’s less caught up in his entrepreneurial zealotry, just as her yearning for a baby is relegated to Steve’s back burner.
With her husband preoccupied while waiting for the $9 million stake pledged by a Swiss investor, lonely Sara obeys the “love thy neighbor” commandment by reaching out to damaged Sam (Shannon) next door. A man literally without a face, Sam is a NASA computer scientist, badly disfigured by a freak auto accident that killed his fiancée. Both Sam and Karl (Asner), the loquacious German pest exterminator who comes to spray the two apartments for bugs, have good reason to refute God’s existence.
The play’s plot skeleton is that of a conventional romantic triangle-turned-ugly. But Wright traces the path from piety to violence in ways both wry and intriguing. He peppers the story with accounts of tragedies and atrocities designed to question the benevolent oversight of a higher power. At the same time, he uses the deeply skeptical Karl to express the view that while God may or may not exist, “There is something.”
Working with designer Beowulf Boritt on a slowly revolving turntable, Bullard pulls off the risky move of staging the action on one unchanging apartment set. The married couple and their neighbor simultaneously occupy a single environment. This cleverly reinforces the key point of people living connected yet separate existences, navigating the same space and dodging – or not – whatever debris gets thrown at them. Darron L. West’s layered soundscape of ambient noise and cinematic underscoring also is effective in conveying the abstract dimension in which the action takes place.
Bullard directed Shannon through a fierce tour de force Off Broadway in Wright’s Mistakes Were Made, and also in Tracy Letts’ Bug. He guides the entire cast here to dig with acuity into their characters’ contradictions.
Departing from the sweet-natured goofballs that have become his signature, Rudd declines to soften the intrinsically unlikeable nature of Steve, with his righteous certitude and his obliviousness to actual feelings. But he also exposes the pathetic side of the man as mishaps and miscalculations stack up against him. It’s a role that easily could have become a cartoon, but Rudd makes him pitiably human.
Arrington’s performance is quieter but no less nuanced, gradually revealing distinctions in the ways that Sara and Steve interpret their faith. What he sees as a moment of grace is a profit-driven illusion, whereas for her it’s a genuine emotional revelation. The wonderful Asner makes the most of his two scenes and choice monologues. Karl has seen and lived through too much to pussyfoot around these “Jesus freaks.” But he’s a generous, twinkly-eyed man willing to share his experience with blunt candor and sly humor.
The standout performance, however, is Shannon’s. Sam’s pain and anger seem to course through every part of the lanky actor’s frame; the mask he wears to hide his disfigurement for much of the action gives the impression of a Frankenstein creation. It’s riveting to watch him bubble from irritation to rage in the face of Steve’s insensitive religious hypocrisy. The same goes for a scene – hilarious and harrowing – in which Sam rails into the receiver while on a tech support call, trying to retrieve his lost memories from a digital photo program. His cold fury when his intrusive neighbor interrupts that call only makes the aching tenderness of the scenes that follow more moving.
Grace is a peculiar play that won’t be for everyone, and its payoff is definitely muted. But in a Broadway fall lineup stacked with revivals of familiar material, its unsettling mood is compelling.
Venue: Cort Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 6)
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington, Ed Asner
Director: Dexter Bullard
Playwright: Craig Wright
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Tif Bullard
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Presented by Debbie Bisno, Fox Theatricals, Paula Wagner, Jed Bernstein, Jessica Genick, Christian Chadd Taylor, Miles Marek/Peter May, Bruce Bendell/Scott Prisand, William Berlind/Amanda DuBois, Ales DiClaudio/LaRue-Noy