NEW YORK — The play "Grace" opens at the end, which is to say a final, terrible scene that leaves no loose ends. Someone is holding a gun. There are bodies on the stage.
How things ever got to this awful place is the subject of Craig Wright's deeply thoughtful black comedy, which has a crackerjack cast under the impressive direction of Dexter Bullard. Somehow, as the cast builds back up to the already seen final scene during the course of the play's life, the suspense builds.
Wright has bitten off quite a lot with just four actors and a script that runs a little over 90 minutes. What's it about? Well, the nature of faith, forgiveness and human frailty. But it's not nearly as preachy and heavy-handed as that sounds.
The play, which opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre, marks an auspicious and long overdue Broadway debut for the writer of TV's "Six Feet Under" and the off-Broadway work "Recent Tragic Events."
Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington play a wide-eyed, deeply religious married couple, Steve and Sara, who have moved from Minnesota to south Florida to start a chain of Gospel-based hotels. (Think baptismal pools and high-speed Internet. Proposed slogan: "Where Would Jesus Stay?")
Things take a turn as the financial pressures mount and the couple encounter two odd balls – a disfigured NASA scientist who deals with space data, played by Michael Shannon, and a German-born survivor of the Nazis who now exterminates bugs, portrayed by Ed Asner.
Both these broken men – their faith destroyed by an accident or the horrors of man's inhumanity – represent potential souls to be converted, but Steve can't close the deal. It doesn't help that the exterminator keeps calling Steve a "Jesus freak."
The unraveling of Steve is at the heart of this play, and it is a sad and wondrous thing to watch Rudd, the childlike man of Judd Apatow films, go from a smug, big-smiling, self-assured guy to a shattered man whose faith has evaporated and who now holds a revolver.
Asner, the gruff star of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant," has the comedy timing perfectly, not surprisingly, but it's also nice to see his angry side, too. His catharsis at the end is a pretty touch, and hopefully he'll not let decades pass again before he returns to the New York stage.
Shannon and Arrington, a real-life couple, are stage animals through-and-through, and we are the beneficiaries. Shannon plays his scientist as laconic and vulnerable, but who undergoes an awakening by the end, while Arrington seems to grow up during the course of the play, going from bubbly and naive to heartbroken and tragic.
There is clever staging by the playwright – the actors roam about in two apartments, but only one has been built on stage. That means characters can be in the same room but metaphorically quite far at the same time, perfect for a play that examines time and distance. Bullard's direction is sharp despite the overlaps – the gimmick is quickly understood – and he somehow has cherished the humor in a play that is really a slow-moving tragedy.
"Grace" is made up of several small scenes that are punctuated by sudden freezes on stage, which highlights the combined skills of David Weiner's lighting and Darron L. West's sound design, which deliver on a dime. Beowulf Boritt's simple set of rattan-inspired, unremarkable furniture, free-standing doorways and a ceiling fan reek of anonymous hotel rooms. The sticky sounds of insects seem to raise the temperature inside the theater.
The play first premiered at The Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., in 2004, and was staged at Northlight Theater in Chicago and the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles. Even during a season in which Broadway has plenty of offerings that deal with religion, "Grace" is a welcome addition.