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A CurtainUp Review

"I talked to the stars and they talked back and something shot through me, it did, down through the top of my head like an upside-down fountain. . ."— Steve
Paul Rudd & Grace Arrington
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
You never know what to expect from Craig Wright. It could be a crowd pleaser like his Pulitzer Prize nominated and much produced The Pavilion (one of four Pine City plays). It could be a quiet or darkly comic rumination on death (the Six Feet Under TV series) and disasters like 9/11 (Recent Tragic Events>) or the Iraq War (Lady). In Grace, which has travelled from its 2004 premiere at the Wooly Mammoth Theater in Washington to Broadway's Cort Theater, he uses the familiarity with absolute evangelical theory gained while earning Masters of Divinity degree at the United Theological Seminary to explore competing theories as to the meaning of life and man's place in the universe.

Grace opens with a violent act that's really the beginning. Thus the audience knows the melodramatic end that awaits its four characters and can only hope that something will intervene to add a more hopeful coda by the time we return to that opening. For all the heart-wrenching soul searching covered during those flashback scenes, Grace is a comedy, though admittedly a dark and rather bizrre one.

The play's central characters who represent the devout Christian right point of view are a naive young couple, Steve (Paul Rudd) and his wife Sara (Kate Arrington). They believe that God has led them to Florida from Minnesota, in order to save a dying group of motels into a successful religious-themed, gospel chain. Rudd's Steve sees God as his personal career booster to help him turn his and Sara's experience running a small hotel restoration service into something bigger and more meaningful. His plans for "full-on Gospel hotels," complete with high speed internet, video conferncing as well as Sanctuary and Baptismal pool, is at once amusing and maddeningly disturbing. Sara is as gung-ho in her Christian faith as her husband, But her budding friendship with Sam (Michael Shannon), the accident-scarred NASA technician next door, gradually weakens her commitment to the marriage and increases her suspicion that the money promised by Steve's mysterious Swiss financial backers will never be forthcoming.

As she begins to see the unseen financiers as flim-flam artists, she is repelled by Steve's own shameless pitch to get Sam to help finance the stalled gospel hotel enterprise and then push his salesman's luck by trying to convert Sam to his beliefs. It's not a stretch to guess that Sara's growing doubts and Sam's guilt and pain about the accident that killed his girlfriend and disfigured him witll have other repercussions — a mix of romantic and redemptive in that their interaction restores Sam's belief that life might still be worth living.

Even without the first scene to suggest that the play's true believer will end up in a dangerously disturbed frame of mind, Rudd 's Steve generates that wild-eyed fanaticism that we have come to associate with those who feel that it is their belief system that will conquer the world's vicissitudes. He clearly seems to feel that the other people in his tunnel visioned universe —, Sara, Sam and Karl (Ed Asner), the apartment building's exterminator haunted by a tragic Holocaust experience, are his to convert and control.

Like Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry, Steve uses his winning smile and bible know-how to prosletiyze. His frenzied scratching at the itch that's also a metaphoric omen of events to come made me actually feel a bit itchy. It's painful to watch the rage building in him as his blind belief in God as the super sales manager of his American Dream fantasy collapses. Full engagement in Steve's trajectory into hell rather than a state of hope and grace suffers from several plot holes. Since he did run a small but moderately successful business it's hard to believe that he would not look into his investors' background just a little more. Even more puzzling is the question of where he goes every day and just what he does.

Kate Arrington gives an honest and vulnerable performance as the lonely wife whose faith falters as her feelings for her sad and equally lonely neighbor grow. If I express my hope that audiences will ease up on the annoying applause at the end of Ed Asner's brief appearances, it's not that his interpretation of the cynical Karl isn't applause worthy. The actor is wonderfully whimsical. He also breaks your heart in a painful monologue.

The most incisive performance comes from Michael Shannon. Sam, the man without a face" and even deeper scars of guilt adds another memorable character portrait to Shannon's resume (Annie Baker's new take on Uncle Vanya, Tracy Letts' Bug, and Wright's Mistakes Were Made and Lady). With half his face covered by makeup designer Nan Zabriskie's eerie looking plastic mask, Sam initially promises to be as creepy-crawly as Shannon's killer in Bug Not so. His NASA programmer is a fascinating mix of brilliance, impatience of vulnerability. It's easy to identify with and laugh when he tries to deal with hellishly obtuse tech support. He's incredibly touching as his friendship with Sara begins to heal the emotional scars of his accident.

Dexter Bullard, who's directed other Wright's plays, has captured the shifting moods of the play's seven scenes. Beowulf Boritt semi-abstract set cleverly has the three main characters occupy the same rattan furnished apartment. The absence of walls. and the bright blue sky instead of a ceiling add to the fluidity of the actors movements in and out of the single space and each other's' separate but increasingly enjoined lives.

Unlike Steve, who uses every chance he gets to convert non-believers and ends up doing the most damage, Craig Wright doesn't tell you what to believe. He even leaves it up to the audience to decide just what Steve's final act will be. This play's credibility gaps and lack of thematic specificity are offset by the fine acting and staging that make it worth seeing — ven though it depressingly echoes the events in the fractional real world where militant extremists often act as insanely as Steve does.

Grace by Craig Wright
Cirected by Dexter Bullard
Cast: Paul Rudd (Steve), Michael Shannon (Sam), Kate Arrington (Sara), Edward Asner (Karl)
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
Lighting: David Weiner
Costumes: Tif Bullard
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Stage Manager: James Harker
Running Time: 100 minutes without an intermission
Cort Theater 138 West 48th Street 212/239-6200
From 9/14/12; opening 10/04/12. Closed 1/06/13 after 22 previews and 108 regular performances.
Tickets, $32 to$132.
Tuesday – Thursday at 7 PM, Friday – Saturday at 8 PM, matinees on Wednesday & Saturday at 2 PM and Sunday at 3 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 9/29 press matinee
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