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Paul Rudd and Ed Asner in Grace

stage dive

Theater Review: Grace Plays on a Critic’s Good Graces

Craig Wright’s work tends to be about people (mostly men) who are rapidly losing their ability to fool themselves. Events in his plays are moving faster than the speed of delusion, faster than self-deception can compensate for, and the smooth cowling of an orderly universe — or even a predictably disorderly one — is peeled back to reveal the cockeyed chaos beneath. In Mistakes Were Made, Wright’s hurtling monologue for man, phone, and fish-puppet, he put a small-time producer (Michael Shannon, his muse and the best brokedown ogre in the biz) on the conference call from hell, with eight different kinds of semi-surreal mayhem pouring in. Some viewers (not this one) considered that situation a strained gimmick — and, it should be confessed, Wright is no stranger to gimmickry. His Recent Tragic Events featured mock-Lost synchronicities, David Ives-ean meta-theatrical devices (a tone sounds whenever a choice is made), a Stage Manager character who critiques and exposes these same devices (the tones are meaningless! The play is written, fixed! Choice is illusion!), and, finally, a sock puppet recognized by the characters on stage as author Joyce Carol Oates. (The puppet laments the American mind’s willingness to believe in destiny and conspiracy, but not in itself.) Oh, and what’s the play about? September 11. Whew!

Wright’s a talented crafter of snap-tight dialogue (honed as a TV writer) and he displays uncommon empathy for his doom-laden characters — and perhaps that’s why some of his tricks come across as unnecessary and ostentatious. They seem superfluous. Now here’s Grace, a small 2004 play revived on a big Broadway stage with a cast of boldface names. Paul Rudd is Steve, an evangelical businessman-dreamer who’s come to Florida on a hot tip from God, determined to strike it rich in Christ’s name. (With the help of a mysterious Swiss investor he’s never met, the portentously named “Mr. Himmelman,” Steve believes he’s been called to start a successful chain of Christian-themed hotels.) This being Florida, where irony is the only zoning code, Steve’s neighbor is an embittered, agnostic NASA scientist named Sam (Shannon), who’s recently lost his fiancee and half his face in a car accident. Their floor plans are identical, so both appear to occupy the same room at the same time, as a front door and a sliding glass one rotate slowly, with Copernican deliberation, around Beowulf Boritt’s barely suggested living space. These two quickly clash, first over musical tastes (Steve blasts Christian rock), then over theology (Steve attempts to wring from Sam both seed money for his hotel chain and fealty to Jesus), and finally, inevitably, over Steve’s unhappy wife Sara (Steppenwolf member Kate Arrington). These lost souls  are visited, briefly but memorably, by Karl (Ed Asner), an octogenarian pest exterminator with an Otto Preminger accent and the sort of harrowing tales of lost-faith-in-humanity that generally accompany that accent. Need I inform you that problems arise with Steve’s angel investor? That Sara seeks solace elsewhere as Steve grows progressively frantic and distant and his body eerily blooms with Jobian welts? That Sam’s vulcanized nihilism is softened by the possibility of love — indistinguishable, perhaps, from the possibility of God?

There’s a lot going on Grace, including a couple of flawlessly uncomfortable scenes where Steve’s tireless witnessing, paired as always with wily fundraising, collides brutally with Sam’s agony and despair. (Does anyone do agony quite like Michael Shannon? The man’s face, even without latex, can collapse in on itself like an old widebody Caddy in a junkyard compactor. And that voice! It sounds like every syllable is being pried out of him with a rusty crowbar.) Yet outside of these scenes, Grace feels a wee bit vacant, a tiny mote bobbing in the relative vastness of the Cort. Steve is a broadly drawn character; his childlike faith in the Prosperity Gospel feels beamed in from a more naive era. Wright enjoys the blunt force of his egoic, Jesus-as-genie fundamentalism, then practically casts him aside. Sam is a prime role for an actor of Shannon’s talents, but the part runs out of steam at precisely the moment it ought to get interesting. (Sam faces his own crisis of faith — the distressing realization that he does believe in a universe that’s conscious of him, even benevolent towards him.) Ownership of the story slides, by default, to Sara, but she’s a bit of a dishcloth, just another inchoate woman getting rag-dolled between rampaging males, and there’s little Arrington can do to help. She seems cowed. Asner steals his scenes effortlessly — I’d happily watch an absurdist hour of him tooling around the stage, just spraying invisible bugs — but what his character is actually saying (not to mention the accent he’s saying it in) is one part functional substance to five parts troweled-on pathos. (The qualifying criteria for going back to the Nazi Well, I feel, are pretty damned stringent, and Wright doesn’t meet them here. I’m as tired of “God vs. the Holocaust,” in all its variations, as I am of Twinkie jokes, facile Reagan comparisons, and the entire twentieth century. Enough of this, please, unless you obtain a permit.)

Miraculously, then, Grace is highly watchable; where it slumps as a play, it soars as a competent consumer good. Director Dexter Bullard (Bug, Mistakes Were Made) knows how to spotlight the standout beats and, for the most part, minimize the water-treading and showboating. Wright is, for the most part, a canny entertainer and an expert stirrer-of-shit: He can pass power, offense, and attack back and forth between characters like nobody’s business, and he has a particular knack for swiftly decompensating males. But he’s also got that weakness for the bright gewgaws and diamond studs of Dramaturgical Seriousness-of-Intent. Sensing his own unfinished business, I sorta suspect, Wright has bookended Grace with a time-rewinding device that underlines one of his themes — the American tendency toward the retrograde — very, very literally. This feels like an enormous mistake, a lot of fussy bric-a-brac substituting for conclusiveness and focus. If there’s a Theater God, he is angry. If there isn’t, I’m sure Edward Albee will have something nasty to say. Neither of these things will or should stop many people from justifiably enjoying Grace. This is not a muscular Broadway play, nor even a terribly good Wright play. Just the best we have in a fallen world.