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.
Religious devotion and the unpredictability of life clash calamitously in “Grace,” a new Broadway play about faith — a popular topic there of late.
Despite a starry cast, numerous showy narrative devices and heady geek-speak about time and space, the production goes in circles as it questions God’s amazing grace. In the end, we’re left with all the illumination of “stuff happens.”
Terrible stuff. That’s obvious from the opening moment. After that, playwright Craig Wright throws things into reverse to reveal what led up to the gunshots.
We meet Steve (Paul Rudd) and Sara (Kate Arrington), a devout Christian couple from Minnesota and now in Florida to open Bible-themed hotels — a venture never explained beyond punchlines, like “Where would Jesus stay?”
Not so funny is that the couple has sunk their savings into the deal and still need $9 million from faroff financier Mr. Himmelman, who’s M.I.A. Steve keeps the faith, declaring, “I’m not a knower. I’m a believer.”
Steve is also obnoxious, grilling people about beliefs, including Karl (Ed Asner). He’s a quirky agnostic German exterminator who sprays pesticide and spurts exposition.
While Steve works, lonely Sarah befriends Sam (Michael Shannon), the reclusive NASA nerd next-door reeling from a wreck that scarred him and killed his girlfriend. Sam’s wounded. Sara’s sensitive. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see where it goes.
Playwright Craig Wright (“Six Feet Under,” “Mistakes Were Made”) is clearly fascinated by the powers and limits of organized faith. Too bad “The Book of Mormon” covers the topic with more understanding. Strip away the religious trappings and “Grace” is wafer-thin as a Lifetime film.
Making it appear complex are various dramatic techniques — flashbacks, scenes that freeze and repeat, ambient noise and characters occupying the same space at same time (just like at Off-Broadway’s “Marry Me a Little”).
Director Dexter Bullard, who staged a previous production of the play in Chicago, succeeds at creating atmosphere — down to the huge eye-shaped window on the sky. Bullard is less adept at pacing. The show idles over its 100 minutes.
The four actors each bring grace notes. Rudd plays it jumpy and jokey as the hypocritical holy roller. Arrington brings affecting tenderness, while Shannon (“Boardwalk Empire”) delivers an intriguingly low-key and realistic turn. Sitcom vet Asner milks laughs with a goofy German accent.
Speaking of which, it’s no fluke that the trouble-making investor is named Himmelman — as in, Heaven Man, aka God. It’s hardly amazing in “Grace” that Mr. H. proves unreliable.
As the bittersweet new Broadway play “Grace” shows, religion, real estate and love have one thing in common: They require a degree of hopeful, maybe even blind, trust.
Steve — Paul Rudd, in a welcome break from his doofy screen persona — certainly has that in spades as he enters an exciting point in his life. He’s happily married to a fellow evangelical Christian, and they’ve just uprooted themselves from Minnesota to Florida so he can make true his dream of gospel-themed hotels.
The concept is hospitality that answers the question “Where would Jesus stay?” thanks to basic amenities like “high-speed Internet. Videoconferencing. Promise Keepers strength training.”
Steve is so focused on his hotels that he neglects his wife, Sara (Kate Arrington, very compelling in a tricky, unshowy role), and she finds conversation and comfort with their reclusive neighbor, Sam (Michael Shannon).
Through Craig Wright’s 100-minute play, they all confront challenges to their core beliefs.
Steve begins as a caricature of a proselytizing Christian, dismissing all contradictions. He first faces off with his condo’s exterminator, Karl (the crusty Ed Asner), who, as a German refugee, knows a thing or two about suffering, and doesn’t believe any God would allow it.
Steve’s next challenge is Sam, who’s not only a former NASA scientist, but has faced a terrible loss: He was hideously disfigured after a car crash that killed his fiancée. Somehow, Shannon projects charisma even with half his face under a plastic mask, like a Saran-wrapped piece of meat.
But Steve doesn’t budge.
“I’m not a knower,” he says, waiting for a check from his mysterious Swiss financial backer. “I’m a believer. And that’s what real estate is all about. It’s about faith. It’s about the substance of things not seen.”
Cue knowing laugh from the audience, aware of Steve’s naiveté and the crash we know is coming: The play starts with him pulling out a gun, then proceeds as a big flashback.
But “Grace” veers off in interesting directions by moving all the characters — not just Steve — outside of their comfort zone. Granted, Wright and director Dexter Bullard overreach at times. Not only does the show proceed in flashback, but both apartments share the set — the characters are in the same space without being in the same room — which is more confusing than anything else. And keep an eye on the overhead fan, which changes speed and direction at key moments.
But those are only embellishments. Ultimately “Grace” turns out to have a simple, affecting point: It’s about the stories we tell ourselves to make it through life.
Even standing stock still, this guy vibrates with discomfort. It’s as if he’s paralyzed by cramps, not so much in his body but in his mind. Sam, who’s been scarred all over by life, has come to mistrust the world. And because Sam is played by Michael Shannon, we trust in his mistrust so deeply that it hurts. By the way, his instincts aren’t wrong.
Anyone doubting that Mr. Shannon is our reigning champion in embodying uneasy American manhood (well, him and Joaquin Phoenix) need only check out his portrait of the doomed Sam in Craig Wright’s “Grace,” which opened on Thursday night at the Cort Theater. This cool, strangulated little essay of a play, which also stars the very able Paul Rudd, deals with really big subjects seldom addressed onstage these days. (Its title refers not to a woman’s name but the theological concept.)
But if “Grace” is remembered in years to come — and I can’t promise it will be — it will most likely be as the production that brought Mr. Shannon’s electrically anxious acting to Broadway. Having played all-consuming paranoia to a fare-thee-well in the Off Broadway and film versions of Tracy Letts’s “Bug” and the movie “Take Shelter,” Mr. Shannon is allowed to be the sane man in “Grace.” But that doesn’t mean his character is any more at ease in his skin.
Uneasiness, on many levels, dominates “Grace,” which was first produced at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington in 2004 and has since been seen around the country. Staged by Dexter Bullard (who directed Mr. Shannon in “Bug” and in Mr. Wright’s “Mistakes Were Made”), this current production exists in a sustained tremor of apprehension.
As lighted by David Weiner, with hushed nerve-scraping sound design by Darron L. West, “Grace” exudes the clinical, creepy brightness of a morgue. The slowly revolving set by the industrious Beowulf Boritt (“Chaplin,” “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet”) does include an otherworldly vista of cerulean heavens. But the sum effect is of those very worldly post-mortems so beloved by true-crime television series.
Like many such shows “Grace” starts with a murder — or three murders, to be exact, and one suicide. (See, I wasn’t spoiling a thing by telling you that Sam was doomed.) The play opens on several corpses, who then rise and act out the last moments of their lives in reverse order, as if a tape were being rewound. That scene, restored to conventional sequence, will be repeated at the end, 90 airless minutes later.
In other words, this is not a whodunit but a why-dunit. And the whys are those asked by theologians and philosophers as well as homicide detectives. (Mr. Wright, for the record, was once a seminary student.)
Well, to a degree. “Grace” isn’t as intellectually probing or unsettling as it means to be. It tidily stacks the deck of its central thesis, which concerns the nature of grace as it is visited on inhabitants of this earth. In Mr. Wright’s version the evangelical Christian doesn’t stand a chance.
The play’s born-again protagonist is Steve (Mr. Rudd), a Minnesotan who has moved to Florida with his wife, Sara (Kate Arrington), with the goal of creating a chain of gospel-theme hotels. (His slogan: “Where would Jesus stay?”) This is a man for whom capitalism and Christianity have been conflated into a single ideology of achievement. Mr. Rudd, whose screen performances have often been edged with a piquant skepticism, plays the part with a committed straightforwardness and no hint of condescension.
Steve has a way of zealously, even manically, bringing up God with everyone he encounters. That includes his reclusive neighbor Sam, a NASA scientist who lost his fiancée (and much of his skin) in a car accident, and Karl (an avuncular, bluff Ed Asner, in a welcome return to the stage), a German-born exterminator whose wife is dying of cancer and who lost his family as a child in Nazi Germany.
Sam and Karl, understandably, don’t have much patience with Steve’s ideas of a beneficent providence. When pressed, Sam reluctantly says he sees Jesus as a mythical figure exploited for profit by churchly corporations. But as the play continues, both these doubters — along with Sara, who has never been as doctrinaire a Christian as her husband — come to think that some sort of spiritual grace may indeed operate in this world.
The paradox of the financially beleaguered Steve losing his religion while everybody else finds theirs is laid out as tidily as a PowerPoint presentation. And while all the performances are solid, I often had difficulty in believing these characters as something other than figures in a parable.
There are a couple of lovely monologues of self-revelation for Sara (played with a serene clarity by Ms. Arrington) and Sam. But there are also instances of glib, shortcut exposition you associate with sitcom pilots. (An exultant Steve to Sara when he thinks his financing has come through: “Do you what this means?” Sara: “That we can have a baby?”)
If “Grace” winds up haunting you, it will be because of Mr. Shannon’s performance. And give credit to those who cast him, against obvious type, as the passive Sam instead of the increasingly crazy Steve. From his tight-muscled posture to his pinched, effortful voice, Mr. Shannon here suggests someone for whom continuing to live is a painful act of labor. It’s when Sam is allowed, briefly, to imagine things might be otherwise that the dialectic of “Grace” acquires achingly human impact.
A wide-eyed evangelical couple has moved to a cookie-cutter Florida rental to open a chain of gospel hotels, the pitch being, naturally, "Where would Jesus stay?" The exterminator is a kooky German codger who says "skedaddle" and "okey-dokey" before spraying toxins. And the next-door neighbor is a depressive computer genius who appears capable of eating his own face off, if only half of his face had not been ripped away already in a car accident.
So much of "Grace" sounds like an easy joke that, when the noose tightens, the surprise cuts sharp and deep. This strangely entertaining, seriously unsettling play, which opened on Broadway with a spectacular offbeat quartet of actors, runs just 90 minutes and keeps teetering on becoming a glib cartoon about religion.
But the actors -- Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington and Ed Asner -- make it impossible to look away long enough to doubt their characters. And playwright Craig Wright -- writer for "Six Feet Under" and creator of "Dirty Sexy Money" -- asks basic questions about the meaning of life with such originality that, scene by blackout scene (on Beowulf Boritt's simply ingenious set), the outcome is always in doubt.
This is an especially good trick because, in the opening moments of director Dexter Bullard's expertly unpredictable production, we are shown its violent ending. The husband, played with sweetly accumulating desperation by Rudd, shoots a lot of people. The action rewinds and, suddenly, we are meeting him and his wife (Arrington) as they wait for the $9 million that a mysterious investor promised to wire from Zurich.
Shannon, best known for playing the fallen FBI wacko in "Boardwalk Empire," has spent much of the last half year giving galvanic performances Off-Broadway. In his Broadway debut, he reveals himself to be one of the mesmerizing actors of our day. As the damaged neighbor with good reasons to doubt faith, this daring talent makes us dread getting under his skin while seducing us with the complexity of his spirit.
Asner's character -- the ostensibly adorable old exterminator with the Nazi horror stories -- flirts dangerously with the cutes. But he, too, brings unexpected shading to a dark, peculiar drama that finds hope in an unfair world of cancer and looters, termites and lost love -- for a moment, anyway.
The word "faith" gets thrown around so loosely and cynically in public discourse -- particularly at this stage in our election cycle -- that it can be shocking when someone pauses to actually ask what it means, and why it has such power to inspire and incite.
These are questions at the pounding, probing heart of Grace (* * * 1/2 out of four), Craig Wright's beautiful, vexing study of two very different but both profoundly damaged men and and a woman who is drawn to both of them.
In the play's first Broadway production, which opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre, Paul Rudd is cast as Steve, who brings his wife to Florida on, literally, a prayer. The couple, who met in a Bible study group, have traveled from Minnesota to fulfill Steve's vision of launching a chain of gospel hotels. Never mind that they're flat broke, and their mysterious sole investor hasn't paid them a cent in nearly a month.
"I'm not a knower, I'm a believer," Steve tells Sam, their next-door neighbor, who has troubles of his own, having recently lost his fiancee in a car wreck that also left his face disfigured. A NASA scientist with an acerbic sense of humor, played by Michael Shannon, Steve appears to be Sam's polar opposite; but they have a few things in common, including an affection for Sara, Steve's sweet, sexy wife.
In fact, none of the characters in Grace -- who also include a grizzled exterminator named Karl, drolly played by Ed Asner -- are as different, or as simple, as they seem on paper. Wright, known to TV fans for his work on shows such as Six Feet Under and Lost, imbues them with a longing, both hilarious and tragic, to make sense of the world -- that is, to know things that neither religion nor quantum physics can ever tell them conclusively.
To reinforce this lack of neat order, the text occasionally moves backward in time, and Beowulf Boritt's spare, single-apartment set functions as both Steve and Sara's home and Sam's, so that we can witness two sets of action at once. But director Dexter Bullard and his superb cast ensure that the messy, utterly authentic humanity in Wright's dialogue is never lost in the chaos.
Rudd rises to the considerable challenge posed by Steve, who is at once guileless and presumptuous, well-meaning and self-serving to the point of being callous and cruel. The easy affability that he has brought to numerous films is distorted into a glib sense of entitlement that becomes comically anti-social.
Shannon is by turns savagely funny and heartbreaking as Sam, especially in his scenes with Kate Arrington's radiant Sara, who for all her superficial dizziness dispenses the play's wisest, most earnest lines. "If we're here beside each other," she says to Sam at one point, "we must be here for each other, right?"
Grace may be too dark to actively endorse that belief system, but it's a constant ray of light looming in the distance.
Craig Wright's new play, "Grace," invites debate on big issues, like the existence of God and the power of faith. But it does so in a creepy-funny way that keeps auds guessing about the scribe's intentions, the director's attitude and the characters' sanity. A dream cast (Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington and Ed Asner) brings so much humanity to these oddball characters -- a young evangelical Christian couple, their reclusive neighbor and a grumpy exterminator -- that even an atheist would send up a prayer that these lost souls will find their faith. God knows they need it.
The play opens on a gruesome scene that one character finds so disturbing he keeps replaying it, trying to reverse time and stop these terrible events from happening. Helmer Dexter Bullard shrewdly stages this intriguing moment in an absurdist style that suggests anything might be possible in this strange universe.
That sense of the unknown is reinforced by Beowulf Boritt's stunning set -- a backdrop of a heavenly blue sky that shifts from dawn to dusk, against a bland modern living room simultaneously inhabited by a young married couple and their reclusive next-door neighbor.
The feeling that something's slightly off here continues through the more realistically staged scenes between Steve (Rudd, making us fall in love with a hateful character) and his mousey wife, Sara (Arrington, who sensitively confers some dignity on this little ninny).
These young marrieds made the great trek from Minnesota to the Florida shore so Steve can establish a chain of faith-based Gospel hotels. After getting the news that a Swiss moneybags is bankrolling Steve's dream, they fall to their knees in ecstatic prayer that includes some weird speaking in tongues. Before this dumb deal falls through, as it must, Rudd makes it oh-so-clear that Steve is a greedy little hustler, notwithstanding his honest belief that he has received a blessing directly from God. ("I talked to the stars and they talked back.")
Arrington gets her chance to give silly Sara more intelligence and depth when she starts paying visits to Sam, their mysterious neighbor, who spends his days wrapped in bandages. In his terrific Broadway debut, Shannon plays Sam as the archetypal cynic who comes by his atheism honestly, having lost both his fiancee and his face in a road accident. Although Steve can't stop himself from preaching to this poor guy, a NASA scientist who would love to transcend time and space in his current condition, Sara seeks and finds the human connections between them.
Before he adopts a more earnest voice, Wright ("Six Feet Under") assigns his sharpest lines to the atheists in this play. Shannon is deeply moving when Sam begins to unburden himself to Sara. But he's also hysterically funny when he cuts through his neighbors' pious cant with some educated zingers.
Sam's witticisms are topped, though, by Asner's droll delivery of all the "sad, sad stories" that Karl, the gloomy exterminator, collects. This tough old bird sizes up Steve and Sara as "Jesus freaks" and generously shares the tenets of his own faith: "One, there's no Jesus. … Two, there's no God. … Three, mind your own business, and everything works out."
The problem with the play is that there's no seismic shift when tables are turned, and the believers become doubters and the doubters find faith. In fact, both believers and doubters sort of slide over to the other side. If faith is as fundamental as Wright tells us it is, you'd think he'd have made his characters fight for it.