Broadway Reviews

Grace

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 4, 2012

Grace by Craig Wright. Directed by Dexter Bullard. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Tif Bullard. Lighting design by David Weiner. Sound design by Darron L. West. Fight Director J. David Brimmer. Make up design by Nan Zabriskie. Technical Supervisor Neil A. Mazzella. Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, with Kate Arrington, and Ed Asner.
Theatre: Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street between 7th and 6th Avenues
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Audience: Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 pm & 7 pm, Thursday at 7 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Ticket prices: $32 - $199
Tickets: Telecharge

Grace
Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you feel like time is either standing still or moving backwards, you're not alone. Mere moments after the shocking opening scene of Craig Wright's Grace, which just opened at the Cort, you're thrust into a temporal time warp as a ceiling fan starts spinning backwards, characters arise from the dead, and actors walk and speak backwards until they arrive at... Well, where exactly they land is a good question, and one that's not answered or for that matter even satisfactorily addressed in either Wright's wobbly play or Dexter Bullard's indifferent production.

These games with the universe continue until the final scenes, but never add up to as much as anyone involved seems to think they should. The idea does sketchily tie in to the theme of the work, which is that God is always watching. And as His children attempt to frame and reframe their lives in terms of their relationship with Him, He's willing to give them additional chances to make things right. To some extent, anyway, and determining that is as close as Wright gets to making a real point.

Trite as this concept is, it is at least a substantive one. Unfortunately, little else supports it. As we delve into the story of Steve (Paul Rudd) and Sara (Kate Arrington), a married couple who have recently moved from the Midwest to Florida, and their next-door neighbor Sam (Michael Shannon), it becomes clear that the real goal is more mundanely murky still.

Steve, a real-estate financier and developer and gung-ho born-again Christian, has a plan for a gospel-themed chain of hotels that he's planning to execute as soon as he gets the necessary seed money from an overseas investor. Sam is a recluse who's still recovering from a horrific accident that ripped the skin from half his face, and long ago abandoned any hope that God might have his best interests at heart. Sara, neither as aggressively devout as Steve nor as cynical as Sam, is caught in the middle when she befriends Sam during the many days she spends at home alone.

Should it seem like there's only one obvious direction in which this setup could develop, rest assured that that's exactly what happens. There's a lot of faith-tuned filigree, provided more by lengthy sequences in which Steve needles others about their beliefs than in demonstrating how he actively practices his own. But, at its heart, Grace is an utterly conventional and largely detail-free chronicle of two uneasy romances peppered by an awkward spirit-swapping story that emerges when Sam finds concrete reasons to believe as Steve starts discovering just as many reasons not to.

Grace
Michael Shannon and Kate Arrington
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Wright knocks out some good one-liners a running gag about the ever-evolving name of Steve's hotels chief providing many of them but he'd have been better off introducing some actual meat into the discussion. Steve and Sara are religious by repetition only, and both Sam and the proudly atheistic exterminator (Ed Asner) who unwittingly brings the two households together make one-dimensional arguments themselves. It's not uncommon for playwrights to either take one side or at least pretend to take both, but rare indeed is the play that can't be bothered to get excited about either.

As a result, it's difficult to get particularly excited about the play. Wright's shaky structure and poorly justified rewinding of the clock every now and then can't replace the drama that's missing, and Bullard's far-too-loose direction doesn't even try to approximate it. A pretentious-looking, wall-free set (by Beowulf Boritt) focuses on a sweeping round window that reveals the infinity beyond the characters' understanding without creating any sense of time and place itself. (The play is ostensibly set in the present.)

The little heat that's generated comes primarily from the actors. Shannon's turn is as searing as is possible, layering pain and longing on top of exploded promise; he does more than Wright to establish how significant Sam's loss really was. Rudd is overly bright throughout, unlocking little new depth in Steve, but toward the end of the evening convinces that he's experiencing conflictions he can't resolve. Both Arrington and Asner are burdened with one-note characters that lurch between their various plot objectives, but more well-rounded writing and far more visibility help Arrington register as a vital part of the overall experience. (Asner's stage time is best measured in minutes, and barely into the double digits.)

What that experience is, and who it's for, is the biggest unanswered question in Grace. Too thin for followers of either of the explored philosophies, too watery to woo the undecided, and too bland to satisfy serious theatregoers, it's best sampled by the easily unoffended who won't be left with much to complain about. Alas, aside from the curiosity of how much time they've lost (100 minutes), they won't be left with anything of note to chew on, either.


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