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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lynn Redgrave
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"It's faith or reason. You have to choose." This damning directive lies at the heart of both Grace, the play by British playwrights Mick Gordon and AC Grayling that MCC Theater is presenting at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, and its title character. It does not, however, apply to the actress playing her. Lynn Redgrave, giving one of the season's fieriest portrayals in one of its coolest roles, fuses those two qualities more completely than the playwrights manage, and make a colorful woman out of someone who should be no more than a monochromatic crusader.

From the moment she appears at the start of the show, strapped into a curious combination of electric chair and professional-quality hairdryer called a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator, she dominates the proceedings as a woman in effortless command of what she wants. Grace can meet any comment with a quip or any statement of fact with an ornamented rebuttal, and Redgrave has polished her arsenal to a blinding sheen, though occasionally letting you peer through the weapons to see the strident, confident woman behind them.

This becomes crucial as the Stimulator does its work, attempting to induce "mystical feelings" in Grace that might not otherwise arise. She is, you see, a "naturalist." Not an atheist, thank you - that merely acknowledges that there's something to disacknowledge. The very idea of God is so ridiculous, so distasteful, that Grace must not only repudiate and mock it but eradicate it from consideration by all thinking, intelligent people. And as the Stimulator does its work, eliciting scenes from her memory with the calculated randomness an earthquake might dislodge volumes from a bookcase, we see exactly the role grace - or the lack of it - has played in Grace's life.

Oscar Isaac and K.K. Moggie
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The central event of those recollections is her son Tom (Oscar Isaac) announcing his intention to give up his law career and become an Episcopalian priest. This horrified not just his mother and like-minded father Tony (Philip Goodwin), but also his skeptical girlfriend Ruth (K.K. Moggie). Tom's betrayal of the family's closely held beliefs, and the lawyer's instinct of searching for evidence and the burden of proof, is an atomic blast that rippled through the previously close family and threatens to tear apart trust, love, and even literally lives as Tom's decision incites a tragic chain of events that will leave everyone reeling for years to come.

Redgrave never lets a hint of hesitation or doubt leak through - she barrels through Grace's various spats, disagreements, and outright fights with Tom with the evangelist's conviction that fully justifies his claim that his mother is more fundamentalist than the people she endlessly rails against. Yet even in her anger she never rises above a slightly elevated calm, as if denouncing others' faiths is as natural to her as breathing. Redgrave makes it clear that things are only different this time because of the proximity of the interloper - the message is the same.

So, sadly, is Gordon and Grayling's message. While this type of plea for tolerance can never be made often enough, Grace has nothing new to contribute to the debate beyond the sterling performances of its actors. In particular, Goodwin delivers a thoughtful Tony and Isaac a sympathetic, patient-to-a-fault Tom, but neither character does much more than fulfill his obvious role in a story that becomes more obvious with each new scene that unfolds from the helmet of the Stimulator.

Aside from Redgrave, who triumphs ultimately by volume, Moggie is likewise outstanding, transforming a rather underwritten bystander into a powerful young woman who finds her own innate strength tested in ways she never imagined. A late scene between the two actresses might look like a case of dueling monologues, but emerges as a fascinating study in how holy wars - even (or especially) between non-believers - can tear families apart.

This titanic climax is Grace's anchoring point, perhaps still an expected moment but not handled as you might predict. The repetitiveness of the other conflicts, however, and the limitations imposed on the echo chamber in which they reverberate by both the number of characters and the running time (90 minutes), prevent the play from landing the emotional or spiritual uppercut it needs to.

Also problematic is the stream-of-consciousness structure that never builds to a flood, through no fault of director Joseph Hardy - there's a sense of the manipulated arbitrary in the order of the scenes that can't be surmounted by his sensitive and declarative staging. It's difficult to build to a surprising, satisfying outcome when there are two possible final states for Grace - will she repent, or will she remain steadfast? - and the winner is more or less stated (however obliquely) within the first five minutes of the show. The specific disjointedness of Grace's memory isn't enough to invigorate an idea this familiar.

At least Redgrave approaches everything as a revelation, which almost makes her performance one. Whether you agree or disagree with what Grace espouses, Redgrave finds in this difficult, rock-certain woman both the lovability of a well-meaning matriarch and the stalwart charm of someone who cares just as much about what she believes. She's exactly the atheist - sorry, naturalist - we all want to know. But too much of Grace is obscured and subverted by Grace, a story we know far too well to show her to her best advantage.

Through March 8
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street (Between Bleecker and Bedford Streets)
Tickets online: TicketCentral

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