October 17, 2012

"Grace" is Blessed with Fine Performances

Polls say that atheism is rising in the U.S. and that even believers go to church less often than they once did. But God still seems to be talking to America’s playwrights. 

Faith was in the background of John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt, but it was front and center in his Storefront Church, which played at the Atlantic Theater Company in June. And A.R. Gurney is currently offering a contemporary spin on the story of Jesus in his new play Heresy at the Flea Theater through Nov. 4. 

Now comes Craig Wright’s Grace, a homily on faith, love and forgiveness that opened at Broadway's Cort Theatre last week.

Theatergoers don’t seem to know what to make of all this sermonizing. They’re OK with it if it comes cushioned in layers of irony or humor, as it does in The Book of Mormon. But they’re much less comfortable when the religious talk is earnest.  And it’s very earnest in Grace

The story centers around Sara and Steve, a young evangelical couple who have moved from Minnesota to Florida to start a chain of religious-themed hotels; and their new neighbor, a NASA scientist named Sam, who has not only lost his faith but his fiancée and half of his face in a car crash.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the interactions between them will end badly because the play actually starts with its final scene and then flashes back to show how things got to that tragic conclusion. 

And that’s not the only metaphysical trick Grace employs. The action, the Playbill tells us, takes place in two identically furnished rentals that are next door to one another. In this production, designer Beowulf Boritt has created one set that doubles for the two apartments and the characters often—and sometimes confusinglyoccupy the supposedly different spaces at the same time.

Wright, a former seminarian, might have made better use of his time if he’d devoted as much thought to his plotting. For too many of the changes that happen to his characters seem unearned. The audience isn’t given a chance to see relationships build; one minute Sara and Sam are wary friends and the next they’re considerably more. 

And, perhaps in a bid to add some humor or to pander to secular theatergoers, Dexter Bullard has directed Paul Rudd to portray Steve as a priggish jerk, which undercuts the dramatic arc for that character.

Luckily, Grace has been blessed with a particularly able set of actors. Rudd has become famous for his roles in Judd Apatow’s comic movies but he's got admirable stage chops as well And both he and Kate Arrington, a member of Chicago’s top-notch Steppenwolf Theatre Company, work hard to fill in the gaps and, ultimately, make Steve and Sara believable.

But the evening belongs to the indie-theater favorite Michael Shannon. In his Broadway debut, he is simply brilliant as Sam. 

Shannon, known for such flamboyant turns as the frustrated producer in Mistakes Happen, gives a restrained and yet still compelling performance. You can see just from the way he folds his arms the changes that occur in Sam as he dares to believe in his love for Sara and in the possibility of God. (Click here to read a profile of the actor.)

And even though Ed Asner, forever famous as TV’s Lou Grant and making his first appearance on the stage in over two decades, seems slightly befuddled at times, he is enough of a pro to use that discomfort to inform his character of a Holocaust survivor who now works as an exterminator. And, particularly in the second of his two brief scenes, Asner brings a kind of Old Testament-wisdom to the play.    

The presence of three recognizable movie and TV actors (Shannon has developed a following for his role as the federal agent on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) is drawing non-traditional ticket buyers to Grace.  And they greeted their idols with enthusiastic entrance applause at the performance my husband K and I saw

But I don’t think that Grace will convert many of them into regular theatergoers. Certainly not the frat boy sitting next to me, who threw back his head and laughed uproariously at each small joke (the slogan for Steve’s hotel chain is “Where would Jesus sleep?”) but spent most of the show’s 100 minutes squirming in his seat.

Grace is unlikely to convert any religious atheists or agnostics either.  Its theological message is too fuzzy for that.  But, if you worship good acting, then you probably won’t want to miss Shannon’s performance because it will make a believer out of you.

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