Two woman walked by me on their way out of the theater after seeing Grace starring Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon at the Cort Theatre. One of the women turned to the other and said, “I thought it was supposed to be a comedy.” She then added “But I’m glad it wasn’t.”
Indeed, though there are moments of great humor in Grace, which was written by Craig Wright (who has also written episodes of TV’s Six Feet Under and Lost), this forceful drama is about the influence of God (or lack thereof) on the paths of our lives.
Grace takes place in two identical condos next door to each other in Florida and opens with its ending, in which two of the main characters are murdered and a third, the shooter, commits suicide. This scene is “rewound” and played both forwards and backwards by the cast, a technique that is used later in the play during another key scene. After this grisly opening the story goes back several weeks to establish the characters we have just seen brutally gunned down.
In one of the apartments lives Steve (Rudd) and Sara (stage veteran Kate Arrington), a young married couple who are deeply religious. Steve has just closed a multimillion dollar deal to start a franchise of gospel-themed hotels with an investor in Zurich, and the two are overjoyed by their windfall. Next door to them lives Sam (Shannon), a surly NASA scientist that was disfigured in a horrific car accident that also killed his fiance. Because of the nature of his scientific work and his accident he does not believe in God, which Steve finds troubling once the neighbors begin to interact. Steve is the type of person who will aggressively ask someone about their faith and defend his own beliefs tooth-and-nail, often causing uncomfortable situations doing so. One such situation involves Karl (Ed Asner), a German exterminator who recounts his terrible experience in the Holocaust to counter Steve’s aggressive insistence on the existence of God. While Steve is off completing real estate deals for the hotels, the lonely Sara attempts to befriend Sam to pass the time even if Sam prefers to wallow alone in his misery and guilt.
The acting in Grace is extraordinary, with all four actors being seasoned professionals with the ability to portray the array of emotions required of the material. Most impressive is Rudd, and I feel that many people who mostly know Rudd from his popular film comedies will be surprised by his acting depth. However, of the “Judd Apatow” crew that includes comedians Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jason Segel, Rudd is definitely the most versatile actor of the group, and though it seems that those other three are making an effort to appear in more “serious” work, Rudd already has been doing so for years and is making a return to Broadway with Grace six years after Three Days of Rain. If the box office grosses of Rudd comedy vehicles Our Idiot Brother and Wanderlust are any indication, Rudd really ought to focus more on roles in works like Grace, which contain elements of comedy but ultimately tap into his abilities as a dramatic actor. He’s extremely effective portraying Steve as a character who professes his devotion to God but also has deep-rooted anger issues that cause him to sometimes lash out at his wife.
Shannon is, as those who have followed his film career and steely-eyed role on Boardwalk Empire know, one of the most intense actors working today. This is his Broadway debut (though its the second time he has starred in this role in Grace), and it comes at a time shortly before Shannon’s popularity will likely explode since he is starring as General Zod in the next Superman movie. Shannon’s Sam is another example of the type of reserved characters that Shannon plays so well, yet he is also surprisingly funny — particularly in a scene when he is on the phone with technical support over problems with the photos of his fiance in his camera that he is afraid were inadvertently deleted. There’s clearly more to this anger than a faulty camera.
Arrington’s Sara becomes a more interesting character as the play goes on, and it’s surprising how complex her character eventually becomes from the giggly, dutiful wife that is seen in the opening scenes. She was the lone cast member I wasn’t familiar with, but her name is definitely on my radar now. And of course, Asner is wonderful in his role as the exterminator, who is a very funny character, but Asner also displays a great deal of pathos when talking about his past and his feelings on God.
One element of the performance that is really clever is that although the play takes place in two identical condos, there is only staging for one. Therefore there are many moments in which we see events happening in Sam’s condo and Sara and Steve’s condo at the same time on the stage but they’re happening in the separate condos. The play is actually staged on a rotating platform, which ties in with the play’s concept of rewinding events in key seasons and the theme of turning back the clock. Director Dexter Bullard, also making his Broadway debut, really utilizes the rotating stage to its full effect.
The play does make some statements about “Jesus freaks” (as Frank calls them) that might initially suggest the play is anti-religious or, at the very least, anti-evangelical. The later scenes should make that clear that it is not either, but the theme of the mysterious ways in which God works is key to the entire experience. A lesser production might have missed this theme in favor for the easy teasing of evangelical Christians — thankfully this production does not. It’s one of the best plays I’ve seen in a Broadway theater, and everyone involved in the production should be proud of pulling it off such an insightful play so well.
Grace is at the Cort Theatre (138 W. 48th Street) and runs through January 6th.