The beautifully simple set inside of Broadway's Cort Theatre is as deceptive as Grace's one word title: neither are as clear-cut as they might appear. In Craig Wright's newest offering, four characters use the stage as a place where the rules of physics and nature of belief collide. The play is gracefully staged and designed, and though its desire to be beautiful occasionally comes at the price of the plot, it is still a thought-provoking night at the theater.
From the first moment of Wright's play, the audience is aware that this stage is going to show us something unusual. Beowulf Boritt's set immediately prepares the audience for the mix of reality and metaphor that comprise the play's contents. The functional Floridian condo furniture sits in front of a surreal moving cloud backdrop, which suggests a large cathedral and a Florida skylight in equal measure.
It is quickly evident that this play has a different attitude towards time and space, as the very first scene is played with the actions and dialogue going in reverse. The actors still speak in sentences that make sense, but the order in which they say them is clearly backwards. This is the first of many aspects of Grace endows it with a kind of David Lynch meets Phantom of the Opera feel.
Allow me to explain my Phantom of the Opera reference. Grace's main action consists of couple Steve and Sara, played by Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington, an evangelical couple who have just moved from Minnesota to a Florida condo where their next-door neighbor, Sam, played by Michael Shannon, has been the victim of a terrible accident. The interplay between the couple and slowly recovering Sam, with the occasional intrusion of the exterminator Karl, played by Ed Asner, drives the story.
Director Dexter Bullard has a strong cast to work with, and the play is very well acted. Paul Rudd breaks away from his funny-guy persona, but the real stand out performances are Shannon and Asner. Shannon's injured NASA scientist and Asner's German exterminator are fascinating characters, whose complexity and specificity is astounding. Shannon's Sam is someone that we want to get to know, and every time he relates a piece of his life story it seems like a gift. The same goes for Asner's Karl, who has an amazing monologue about his experience as a non-Jew during the beginning of World War II that Asner plays beautifully.
This is not to say that Rudd and Arrington are not strong, but the major plot flaw in this otherwise bold work seems to be the way Wright fell back on stereotypes for these two characters. Karl refers to the pair as "Jesus freaks," and despite a few attempts to show growth and change, especially in the part of Sara, Wright does not really do much to challenge Karl's assessment. The fact that we see any complexity in these characters at all is a credit to Rudd and Arrington's abilities.
This becomes troublesome as the play begins to deal with issues of belief and fate. Without revealing too much, I have to say that the device of "reversal," which I have already described as part of the opening scene, is a very striking and interesting effect, but one which is not fully integrated into the plot. Together with the average characters of Steve and Sara, Wright falls short of making a piece that is not just good, but outstanding. The potential is everywhere in this play, but the structure of the writing does not quite allow it to achieve the grace it so desires.
Despite these details, Grace itself is a smart, creative look at belief. It also allows the audience to question their own views about the issues expressed in the play, though again, not quite to the fullest extent that I believe it could. But I suggest you go and see it. After all, there but for the Grace of God go I.
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