Cautiously (but overall) thoughtfully directed by Dexter Bullard, Grace follows an evangelical couple Steve and Sara, played by Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington, shortly after their move to Florida to open a chain of Gospel-themed hotels, their catchphrase being, of course, "Where Would Jesus Stay?" They soon meet Sam, their tormented neighbor with a disfigured face, played by the truly remarkable Michael Shannon. It is Sam, a NASA scientist and un-explicit non-believer who ignites the love triangle that takes a tragic turn referenced at the very start of the play. And finally there's the acerbic German exterminator (get it?) Karl, played by the wonderful Ed Asner who provides most of the play's comic respites.
When the lights go up we see two bodies lying before us. And then suddenly, we are taken back in time, each figure coming back to life about to unfold the story of what has already occurred. Lines are repeated, bodies come to life again. It is this circularity that serves as the driving metaphor of the production, echoing not only throughout the plot structure, but also in the set itself, adeptly designed by Beowulf Boritt. The play takes place in one apartment that doubles as two; one, Sara and Steve's, the other Sam's. While initially confusing, this doubling ultimately works in the play's favor, another echo of the circulating questions.
Shannon and Asner are the strongest in the production, but that might also be an effect of the dimensionality given to their characters. Rudd and Arrington (playing Steve and Sara, or the "Jesus Freaks" as Asner's Karl calls them) have to make do with more thinly drawn roles. Wright was too free in employing stereotypes with these two evangelicals, who sputter lines like "See, I'm not a knower. I'm a believer," as Rudd's character Steve so emphatically tells Sam.
Although Asner carries the comedic spark of the show, his role is not devoid of tragedy. In a painful (and alas, a bit stereotypical) monologue about his childhood love Rachel, the Jewish girl his German family hid from the Nazi's, Asner as Karl steps in to keep pummeling the audience with the heavy hand of tragic past events. Each character is searching for answers in a world seemingly empty of them.
Wright, who tends to launch his plots with mysteries to be solved, appears to be asking whether starkly different views of morality and faith can be reconciled, a question worth asking as we approach the November election. However, the production too easily veers into overripe melodrama and disappointingly obvious metaphors. With its mix of comic turns and horrifying violence, as well as earnest questions met with cliche answers, the themes of the play appear to push against and cancel each other out. To begin and end with nothing might be one answer to the questions of grace, faith, and God, but in this dramatic rendition the irony of seeking 'grace' in a graceless world gets sadly lost.
Grace runs through January 6 at New York City's Cort Theater.