Ironically titled Grace, the new play at the Cort is more about those fallen and falling from it than experiencing it in the time that we are given to spend with them. Good performances coupled with a passable script and gimmicky directorial choices make for a sufficient theatrical experience that could possibly translate better to film.
Sitting in the theater and looking up at the stage, it is difficult to say if this production’s flaws are in director Dexter Bullard’s interpretation of the script or inherent in the text itself. The argument over the existence or non-existence of God chases its own tail, a quality which is only exhausted by an incessantly rotating set, which moves at a creeping speed in alternating directions. This device is tacked on to the occasional scene overlap and staged rewind of physical action, which begin with a bang at the top of the piece and then peter out as an ill-used contrivance which works more to confuse and complicate an otherwise simple story and concept.
Playwright Craig Wright is arguing with himself over the matter of religious faith, and while there are moments that his characters speak for themselves, they are more often forced into the cornered perimeter of Wright’s own argument, confining them to the roles they must fulfill. That being said, his actors were able to find sufficient substance in his words to fuel some solid work.
Michael Shannon gives a relaxed and compelling performance with his interpretation of Sam, working naturally with the extreme deformities fate has given his character while creating a very believable NASA employee that lacks all signs of acting. For a Broadway debut, Shannon offers us the promise of future performances to come. Paul Rudd [above, left] is given the difficult job of making a delusional, pushy born-again someone that the audience can at least somewhat sympathize with, and almost does so through the bounding energy and blind optimism that he has to offer the part. Kate Arrington begins as a baby-crazy Sara, who quickly forgets the baby but maintains a somewhat resigned religious fervency that accepts her husband’s shared beliefs in a much calmer and simple manner. Rounding off with the most difficult character in the piece, Ed Asner [above, right] gives a natural breath to Karl, who is anything but a natural presence in the story. Taking on a god-like quality, though the character himself questions any such deity, Asner works with a thick German accent to create a warm center in an otherwise cold world, offering the hope that everything will work out in the end.
Deep questions relating to theology remain unanswered by this play, but beneath the tired arguments are some real human qualities that are recognizable and touching in their own rights. Grace is unlikely to be the play that you remember and think back on years from now, but it is a pleasant and somewhat challenging way to spend a night in the theater. - C. Jefferson Thom
The Cort Theatre is at 138 West 48th Street New York, NY 10036.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.