Killed By Grace
In Craig Wright’s play, Grace, currently premiering on Broadway, “Grace” is not an angry housewife set on mortal revenge. Rather, it’s a message-loaded melodrama of what can happen when two otherwise well-meaning human beings go after God’s grace with a missionary zeal. And make no mistake, in Mr. Wright’s universe, grace kills.
Steve (Paul Rudd) and Sara (Kate Arrington) are reborn Christians who have landed in sun-soaked Florida from the wilds of Minnesota to spread the Word. Sara would like to have a baby while they’re at it, but Steve’s mission is to open a chain of Gospel-themed motels—“Where would Jesus sleep?—with a little help from an unseen Zurich financier. Florida has a way of attracting the wayward souls of this world, and a surly next-door neighbor with half a face from an earlier car accident (Michael Shannon) as well as a grumpy, atheistic exterminator (Ed Asner) will prove to be more than our Jesus promoter bargained for.
With a nod to today’s post-mortem TV detective series and a play structure we usually associate with ’40s cinematic classics like Mildred Pierce, our story opens with the darkened silhouettes of characters we don’t know yet, and within a matter of seconds, the one with the gun has brought them all down, including himself. What follows over the next intermission-free 90-minutes is a rewind to the beginning of this all-too-human story of faith and greed in unequal proportion to one another, and the disillusionment that comes when God doesn’t pay the bill.
There are few surprises for the audience — notwithstanding the give-away outcome — with characters that break into cliché pronouncements about where they fall on the faith barometer. These revelations come at predictable intervals. Strings of dialogue are believable enough, but have a slickness all too familiar to a TV-obsessed culture. Still, this is a clever enough writer to give us a few rapid-fire exchanges and an occasional zinger in an attempt to save the day.
Where Wright does excel is in his subject matter. He not only served as a TV writer for the likes of Six Feet Under, Lost, and Dirty, Sexy Money; he earned a Masters degree in divinity. Here, he’s distanced himself enough from the hallowed halls to know that placing all one’s bets on one path with no options to take a detour is a dangerous way to go. Our clay-footed antihero is accelerating downward at an alarming speed and it’s too late to put on the brakes. His Jill (aka Sara), caught up in a faith she can’t really comprehend, will come tumbling after. Wright’s touch of grace is a first-rate cast he can thank for adding the right degree of yeast to the dough.
Paul Rudd is engaging as the young zealot who has embraced a kind of Christian get-rich scheme. We can easily believe he runs on instincts alone. His Broadway credits include Three Days of Rain, The Last Night at Ballyhoo, and Lincoln Center’s Twelfth Night. He’s also been a familiar face to TV audiences for the sitcom Friends. As Steve, he exudes all the passion of a used car salesman who took one too many Dale Carnegie courses in success. He can’t let himself doubt the riches on earth he feels are his. “I’m not a knower,” he says, “I’m a believer.” He tells us he talked to the stars and they talked back. If he can just come up with the right name for his business model — Jews Drop Inn, Upper Rooms — coupled with a little help from the absent business partner, all signs are a go. The working title is Crossroads Inns. A little symbolism rearing its head early on never hurts according to this playwright.
Sara’s wants are a little simpler in the scheme of things. There’s an almost unbelievable ingenuousness about her, an innocuous sweetness in the way she’s written that cloys. It’s finally her loneliness and not her faith, which is too amorphous to save her, which sends her into the arms of her disfigured neighbor. Her whiny desperation is a challenge even for Kate Arrington. The actress is a Steppenwolf Ensemble member from Chicago, a well-seasoned performer who distinguished herself in The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman Theatre with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy. She deserves a more complex character than Wright has given her.
As Sam, Michael Shannon is nothing less than mesmerizing. It’s a strange characterization, as he moves, almost zombie-like, through Beowulf Boritt’s open-ended surreal setting. He’s a frustrated, angry agnostic, trying to find answers for the car crash that killed his wife, and trying to understand why he can’t recover on his computer software the last pictures of their time together. A former NASA employee — a kind of space plumber if you will — when he’s first confronted by the solicitous Sara, he wants no part of her “dead-ass cookies.” It’s a tightly-coiled performance and we wait breathless. Will he, or will he not, strike?
One of the few surprises of the evening is Ed Asner as Karl, the exterminator. This versatile, seven-time Emmy Award recipient is best remembered for playing the gruff but soft-hearted boss Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As an aging German immigrant, he brings a no-nonsense breath of fresh air to the proceedings. He remembers all too well the horrors that befell his own family by the Nazis. To a man of his sensibilities, Steve is little more than a “Jesus Freak.” Karl is perfectly clear about the God question. “I woke up one morning,” he tells us, “and I’m here.” This is Asner’s first appearance on Broadway in nearly a quarter century and audiences can only hope there will be more.
Director Dexter Bullard is no stranger to new plays that can confound an audience whose teeth have been cut on more traditional fare. He won the Lucille Lortel Award and a Drama Desk nomination for Tracy Letts’ Bug (which also starred Michael Shannon) and co-founded Plasticene, a physical theatre company featured at Steppenwolf, Edinburgh and in New York. With Grace, he tries to perform a tricky balancing act between heightened melodrama and a kind of transcendental space-time odyssey. In one endless interlude, time seems to stop while Sam and Sara circle in place on a revolving stage with a sort of atonal reverberating sound opera as backdrop. Sound Designer Darron L. West (who won the Tony for Peter and the Starcatcher) has given us an eerie, ear-blasting score more fitting for Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scene breaks are punctuated by short, death-knell-like bursts that stun. It’s impressive but is it really the right choice for this domestic tragedy? At other moments, Bullard shows a greater comfort with quick-paced, naturalistic, confrontational scenes between his actors.
What is impressive and feels right for a play whose characters teeter somewhere between heaven and hell, is the other-worldly atmosphere that Boritt has created. A huge, bluish, oval-shaped frame provides a projection of the sky throughout the play’s action. Door frames are judiciously placed about the stage to leave the movements fluid between the cast members. The ubiquitous bamboo furnishings that manage to hint at the interchangeability of a Florida apartment complex strike just the right note and David Weiner’s cool, antiseptic lighting enhances the overall mood.
Wright has proven he’s not afraid to tackle a big issue like the existence or non-existence of God. He obviously believes it’s a worthy subject for the stage. In a recent interview for The New York Times, he professed, “If you believe in the value of every human life, if you believe that lives that aren’t filmed have meaning, then you have to believe in the theatre.”
Grace premiered at The Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC in 2004 and was subsequently seen in a celebrated production at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago as well as the Pasadena Playhouse, where it received three LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, including Best Play. The issue is not whether a play with such a weighty subject should find its rightful place on the boards in this new version. Rather, it’s whether or not the graceful thing to do would have been to keep it a little longer in the wings until it was ready for Broadway.
(“Grace” can currently be seen at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY in a limited run through January 6, 2013. Tickets are on sale through Telecharge by calling 212-239-6200 or by visiting http://www.graceonbroadway.com)