February 20, 2008

The Saving "Grace" of Lynn Redgrave

Blame it on lingering unease about the turn of the millennium or growing antipathy towards religious fundamentalism (Islamic and Christian) but atheism has become a hot topic. And the Brits are the ones turning up the heat. Two of the most popular books in 2007 were the British-born literary critic Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor of evolutionary biology. British Humanist Philip Pullman’s fantasy series for children, “His Dark Materials,” has become equally popular and one of the books, “The Golden Compass”, was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. And now there is Grace, a play by Mick Gordon, a British theater director and AC Grayling, a London-based philosophy professor, about a college professor who is so anti-religion that she even rejects the term atheist because the word implies an acceptance of the concept of a God.

The action in Grace centers around the decision of the title character’s adored only son to become an Episcopal priest. The show was a hit in London and last week the MCC Theater Company opened its production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre down in the always-freethinking West Village. If the reception the show received during the performance I attended is any key, Grace has hit a sweet spot here too. One woman actually called out, like a penitent in a Pentecostal church, to voice her support for a line about the fallacies of the anti-evolution theory of Intelligent Design.

I’ve been fascinated by the God Wars for a while now but I wanted to see Grace because I wanted to see Lynn Redgrave, who is starring as the professor. I’ve liked Redgrave since her days as the awkward heroine who almost gets the guy in “Georgy Girl” and the People magazine reader in me has admired her for the dignity and honesty with which she’s dealt with having a-steal-the-air-out-of-any-room older sister (Vanessa) an in-the-closet father (Sir Michael) a philandering husband and a bout of cancer. But as the years have gone by, what I’ve really come to appreciate is the way Redgrave keeps getting better and better as an actor. In Grace, she may be the best she’s ever been (click here for an except from her performance). So good, in fact, that I’d almost recommend the show, even though I’m lukewarm about the play itself.

I’m all for plays that take on big ideas. And it’s pretty damn hard to finder a bigger idea than the existence or non-being of God. I particularly appreciate those works that attempt to explore all sides of an issue. And in addition to her Christian son, Grace has a secular Jewish husband and a lapsed Buddhist daughter-in-law. But it’s not really a play for me when the characters simply declaim their views to one another or directly to the audience, as they do too much in this 90-minute, intermissionless drama. A play demands more grace than that.

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