Polished and uniformly riveting, the four actors in Grace, a new play on Broadway by Craig Wright, directed by Dexter Bullard at the Cort, provide the grace an otherwise benign and disappointing play does not. The playwright had a runaway success off-Broadway with Mistakes Were Made. History and good fortune did not repeat themselves uptown. However, the estimable Michael Shannon has graced both plays, and for that, Mr. Wright can count his blessings. That goes for the rest of us too.
A treatise on theology and faith, with all the doubt and distrust, hope and salvation such weighty subjects inspire, Grace picks at scabs instead of fully addressing them. If you’re looking for answers to earth-shattering questions raised by Sunday-morning television evangelists looking to raid your soul for profit, you will go away empty. But you will spend 90 edgy minutes (without intermission) in the company of a few vainglorious actors, good and true, while you make up your mind. On a characterless revolving set by designer Beowulf Boritt—who is also currently flooding the stage of the Laura Pels with the water-soaked horror If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet—two identically ugly Florida condos next door to each other occupy the same space. On one side live Steve and Sara (Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington), a couple of attractive born-again Christians from Minnesota who have just arrived to start their own chain of evangelical gospel hotels, ever-mindful of their prayers, always thanking God and his son Jesus. (“Keep holding us, Lord, always forward, deeper and deeper. Amen.”) Steve is devout, but greedy. Sara is reserved, but needy. He wants money, success and power. She just wants a baby. On the other side, there is Sam (Mr. Shannon), a depressed, wounded and deeply cynical atheist with a face scarred by near-fatal burns from an automobile accident that killed the woman he loved. Grace opens with Steve, barefoot in a white suit and waving a gun, walking in and pumping bullets into his wife and their next-door neighbor, then turning the weapon on himself. Blackout. The play begins.
That is not a spoiler. A lot of plays end with a murder. This one gets the action out of the way in the first scene, beginning with two murders and one suicide, then takes 90 minutes of explanation while the corpses rise, compose themselves, and re-enact (sometimes in reverse order) the events that led to the tragedy and violence. Mr. Rudd’s Steve is the same cut of obnoxious brat he’s played in a score of rude comedic movies, but with a more sober and devotedly mature resolution. He really believes capitalism is not just kid stuff, but divinely inspired. Sam is a reclusive NASA scientist with half of his face covered by a mask, like the phantom of the opera. He is not only skeptical of everything his neighbors do and say, but their church music is seeping through the walls and driving him wild. Steve sweats and frets over $9 million in promised financing for his hotel project to be wired from a mysterious investor in Zurich; what Sam labels a “predicament,” Steve calls an “opportunity.” Through his work in the space program, Sam already knows what’s in the sky, and it does not include God. Sara befriends her miserable neighbor out of a combination of compassion and mutual loneliness. While her husband is being sued by the bank for fraud with a most un-Christian-like fervor, she tests her own divine values. They find grace differently, and some never know it at all.
Meanwhile, coming and going through their homes like a toxic fume, there is the gruff building exterminator, played by the legendary Ed Asner with a German accent, rotund, with white whiskers and looking rather like Santa Claus in black shorts, a canister of pesticide around his waist, spraying for bugs. A Polish-born cynic whose family hid Jews during the Holocaust and witnessed terrible atrocities, he believes only three things: there is no God, there is no Jesus and if you shut up and mind your own business, everything will work out. The more Steve and Sara try to rationalize religion, the more Sam and the exterminator denounce the existence of a deity. The walls that divide the two living spaces are invisible, so there is only one room representing two homes. The inhabitants move in and out simultaneously without seeing each other, sometimes sitting at the same table. Is that clear? I know. It confused me, too.
There’s nothing perplexing about the quartet of actors who dominate and inform the proceedings, though. Everyone has a monologue that is delivered magnificently. Mr. Rudd is a carefully considered jangle of faith and frustration, ready to snap like a dry twig. Ms. Arrington is a ruptured vision of lonely expectation. Mr. Asner provides the comic balance. And you can’t take your eyes off Mr. Shannon for fear that you might miss something. He’s played so many psychos, hit men and schizophrenics, it is refreshing to see him so sensitive. There is nothing conventional about his looks. Sometimes he’s a twitching mask of pain—the real deal, not some wacko parody of phony emotion like Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. A moment later, pallid and dead, he looks like his face has been erased. Then it begins to move, with a voice pliant and expressive, pensive and restrained. The uneven writing gives him lines that border on bathos, yet he breathes the honesty of life into every human moment. Describing the death of all he held dear in the past, then showing a reluctant surrender to new feelings of awakening that might enrich his future, he makes you hang onto every word. The lack of conflict in Grace makes it a dull place to hold attention, but Michael Shannon is an actor whose innocence and purity, combined with both strength and purpose, gives him the power to lift a mediocre play into another dimension.