Craig Wright's play Grace, first performed in Washington DC at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2004 is now making it's Broadway debut at the Cort theatre. Grace is a challenging work for the average audience member. Beginning with its shocking ending and then winding back so that we see how this tragedy came to be, Grace can be slightly off putting. Add in that it takes place in two identical Florida condominiums and that scenes take place at the same time within both spaces and Grace could be a muddy mess in the wrong directoral hands. Dexter Bullard shapes this story in such a manner that an attentive audience will catch on to the script's eccentricities. Briskly paced Grace builds from a hopeful second scene until it reaches the breaking point. It becomes inevitable that the tragic scene which opens the play cannot be avoided.
The Grace of the title has a great deal to do with religious faith. The married couple Steve and Sara have sold their business and moved from Minnesota to Florida to open a chain of gospel motels. They have done so with the honest belief that what they are doing is God's work and that the persons who have agreed to finance the venture will follow through on their promises. Grace also refers to an acceptance of the horrors of the past for the plays other two characters. Sam, Steve and Sara's reclusive neighbor, is recovering from an accident which killed his fiancee and left him with extensive burns. The fourth person in this tale is Karl, the elderly exterminator who does not believe in God because of the events he took part in as a young man in World War II Germany. His family tried to help the Jews which led to a terrible incident which haunts Karl to this day.
Paul Rudd takes what could be an insufferable character and makes him somewhat sympathetic through pure honesty. Steve is that born-again Christian with the capital C who uses every opportunity to share his faith with everyone he meets. Mr. Rudd is so friendly and engaging that, despite the fact that Steve is one of those people you just want to slam the door on for being compelled to always discuss religion and seem oblivious to other people's discomfort, that you almost forgive him his transgressions His spiraling out of control as his Job-like trials overwhelm him is the train wreck you cannot stop watching. Yet his inability to not see what his blind focus on the hotel chain and not on the needs and desires of his wife clearly lets the audience see how the devastating finale will come to pass.
Kate Arrington as Steve's wife Sara is a more compassionate character. Sara is just as religious, fervently praying with her husband. She is increasingly left out of the business decisions and thus seeks meaning in her uprooted life by attempting to befriend the reclusive Sam. Michael Shannon portrays Sam with deep intensity. Sam in his hands is a man filled with anger and regret, lashing at the world, yet really punishing himself for deeds and words he cannot take back. As Sara becomes alienated from her husband a close bond grows with Sam. The release of pent-up emotions becomes a state of Grace for these two characters.
The fourth character, Karl only appears briefly in the play, but his appearances are significant. Ed Asner takes on what seems to be at first a simple busy-body workman role designed for comic relief. Yet, when confronted by the well-meaning Steve to share why he no longer believes in God, Mr. Asner delivers a harrowing tale of the nightmare that was World War II. When Karl finds redemption for the horrific act he was forced to partake in so long ago, his acceptance of what he sees as God's grace becomes the catalyst for the play's finale.
Grace is a challenging work. The play does have some flaws in its confusing structure yet in the hands of these four actors and the capable direction of Dexter Bullard ultimately leads to a satisfying evening of theatre.
Grace by Craig Wright is being performed at the Cort Theatre in a limited engagement through January 6, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.graceonbroadway.com or www.telecharge.com.