“This is a sad story,” states Karl, the plain-spoken German exterminator as he begins recounting events from his life. The same could be said before the first scene of Grace, the metaphysical dark comedy currently in performances at the Cort Theater. Written by Craig Wright, a former theology student, Grace explores the ideas of human salvation, both on the Earth and after death. As the first scene makes very clear, this is not an uplifting story. The ominous foreshadowing in this play is apparent – something bad is going to happen.
Grace begins at the end, with the final scene being acted out in reverse, and then abruptly switches to the beginning, where we meet Steve and Sara, a devoutly religious couple who moved to Florida from Minnesota to open a chain of gospel-themed hotels. (Their business name is “Sonrise LLC” and their intended slogan is, “Where Would Jesus Stay?”) Sam spends his days working on the business while Sarah remains at home, bored and lonely, longing for a child. She befriends their neighbor Sam, a NASA scientist who is mourning the death of his fiance in a car accident that caused permanent damage to his appearance. As Sara and Sam’s relationship with each other deepens, Paul’s relationship with God wanes, building to a climactic – and tragic – ending.
Directed by Dexter Bullard, Grace is an intimate play, both in its acting and its execution. Beowulf Boritt’s set represents both Sara and Sam’s apartments, but only one set of furniture is onstage, with a vast sky in the background to represent what lies beyond the Earth. While in their separate apartments, Sara and Sam stand physically close together onstage, almost overlapping each other, despite their emotional distance. But that distance quickly closes as the two grow closer, while Sara’s distance with Steve increases.
Such an intimate play requires equally intimate acting, and on that front Grace delivers. The four actors all give extremely developed, nuanced and human performers. As Steve, Paul Rudd is outstanding, depicting the character as both good-hearted and narcissistic, with a dangerous intensity lurking beneath his affable exterior. Known for his sweet, stoner-slacker roles onscreen, Rudd reveals a new side of his acting in Grace. After meeting both Karl and Sam, he asks them if they believe in God, saying in a deliberately casual manner, “I’ve always been interested in hearing about other people’s beliefs.” But those conversations quickly develop into violent shouting matches, mostly on Steve’s end, as his religious fervor as a born-again Christian filled with converter’s zeal takes a darker turn. As his circumstances worsen, Rudd’s transformation from a smug, self-satisfied head of a house to a shattered man filled with desperation, is compelling.
As Steve’s neglected wife Sara, Kate Arrington gives a performance of kindness and compassion as well as latent passion. When we first meet her, she is bubbly and naive, fully in support of her husband, but that changes as her relationship with Sam and respectively Steve adjust, a different aspect of her character – a stronger, more self-reliant one – emerges. When she begins to resist Steve, and he mentions verses in the Bible about a wife submitting to her husband, people in the audience laughed and groaned, but Sara’s response onstage was one of disgust (much to my satisfaction).
Michael Shannon gives a truly compelling performance as Sam, a man struggling with loss and anger (a scene of him yelling at a phone support technician provides one of the lighter moments in the show) as well as authentic character development as he opens up to Sara and her beliefs. Shannon is an understated stage actor, relying on subtlety rather than hysterics, and his performance is extremely effective and moving.
Comic relief is provided by Ed Asner’s Karl, a who was a child during the Holocaust and whose wife is dying of cancer when we first meet him. After witnessing horrific suffering as a child, Karl strives to answer the question of why there is evil, if there is a God. Practical and plain-spoken, he abides by the philosophy, “”There’s no Jesus. There’s no God. Just mind your own business and everything will work out.” And while that philosophy does not apply to the characters of Grace, a well-acted, thought-provoking play on Broadway sometimes feels like nothing short of a miracle.