The title of Craig Wright's new play tells you that it is going to be about the place of religion in a secular age. What does it mean to be in a state of grace? Can one separate grace from God? How can one believe in God in a world of suffering and injustice? Can one really shed one's guilt through expiation? Many of Wright's characters are suffering from guilt at their own actions and horror at the actions of others. Karl (Edward Asner), an elderly exterminator, has survived the horror of Nazi Germany and the guilt at revealing the whereabouts of a Jewish friend to the Nazis. Sam (Michael Shannon) blames himself for the death of his fiancé in a freak automobile accident that he survived, though he is now disfigured by burns. At the beginning of the narrative the play dramatizes, the central character, Steve (Paul Rudd), believes he is in state of grace. Like many Americans over the past two centuries, he believes that his impending financial success is a deserved gift from God. Belief in Christianity is crucial to Steve and he tries to convert everyone to his ideology in a way that is obnoxiously smug. Steve wants to create a chain of Gospel themed motels, merging religious belief and business. Single-mindedly pursuing success, he is sometimes cruel to his sweet wife (Kate Arrington) who really believes in the importance of doing good. During the course of the play, Steve loses everything he values and lashes out in violence that is also typically American. The devout Christians are not necessarily the characters who act with compassion. At the end of the play, Steve, gun in hand, shouts, "I just want to go back" -- back to when God was in his heaven and all was right with Steve's world. Like most evangelicals, Steve wants easy answers and a God, who like a good Santa Claus, gives him what he wants. It is interesting that Sam, the disfigured, guilt-ridden person who comes to find healing through a loving connection with another person is Unitarian-Universalist. It may be because I share Sam's religion, but I see GRACE as a very UU play, depicting a world in which there are only hard questions, not easy answers, and in which loving, compassionate human behavior is the healing force.
GRACE is not a great play, but it has its moments and does try to grapple with issues that are central to our culture. Like many television dramas it begins at the climax then rewinds to the events leading up to the carnage we see in the first minute. I'm not sure it wouldn't be a better play if we didn't know where it was going and were more surprised by the ending. The play takes place in two identical, neighboring Florida condos, but the play and the production has the events in the two rooms taking place simultaneously in one room. Characters may be separate in space, but we see them next to each other. Wright aspires to poetry and some of his imagery is arresting. Sam is a NASA scientist who specializes in the elimination of the extraneous noise that muddies signals from our probes to outer space. When asked if he succeeds, he answers "You can't." The noise that muddies communications will always be there unless one has the ability to listen compassionately. GRACE packs a lot into ninety minutes.
The cast is uniformly fine. Rudd's Steve verges on being manic, but the subtle, low-key performances of the other actors provide excellent balance. Michael Shannon, who gave one of my favorite film performances of 2011 in TAKE SHELTER draws one in through his intense silences.
I'm not sure a thoughtful play like GRACE belongs on Broadway in the current state of things in the commercial theater (it hasn't been doing good business despite the starry cast). It's an intense little play that would be better served by a more intimate space. Still, if not one of the best plays of the year, it's well worth seeing.
GRACE by Craigh Wright. Directed by Dexter Bullard. Cort Theatre. December 27, 2012.