The new play, Grace, at the Cort on Broadway, is a revelation. For starters, it makes it clear that Paul Rudd is far more than a dimple and a charming smile. The lad can act, and though he’s hinted at that before in London in Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Off-Broadway in The Shape of Things, he is best known for the light romcoms in film that have given him celebrity.
In Grace, he is the born again Steve, who with his wife Sara has moved from Minnesota to Florida and is now living with her in a condo. His plan is to open and run a chain of gospel theme hotels. Like so many converts, his zeal for his new-found religion is boundless and will lead him, in the course of the 90 minutes that barrel through this play, to three murders and a suicide.
I haven’t destroyed the evening for you, for the play begins with the grisly events, and flashes back to the beginnings that caused them. His next door neighbor, Sam, is rotting away with guilt in an apartment so like Steve’s and Sara’s, the designer has ingeniously managed to offer us only one set, to be shared by the neighbors, sometimes all three wandering through it simultaneously. Under Dexter Bullock’s impeccable direction, this only tightens the tension.
We have another revelation in Mr. Bullock. Though he was highly regarded for his staging of Tracy Letts’ Bug at the Barrow Street Theatre, he somehow remained under my radar, for I’d not seen his much praised work elsewhere, mostly in Chicago.
Here he arrives on the Broadway scene in full command of this tricky play by yet another welcome addition to Broadway, the playwright Craig Wright. He’s been produced all over the map from the Woolly Mammoth, which premiered Grace, to Playwrights Horizons, from the Humana Festival in Louisville to Steppenwolf. A dozen of his plays have been done, but clearly he’s not pursued Broadway, and it hasn’t pursued him. At last the forces were joined, and this fine writer has had a first class production on the Main Stem. His published plays are available from Dramatists Play Service, Samuel French, Playscripts, Inc. and Northwestern University Press.
Another major discovery is Michael Shannon, here making his Broadway debut as well, after a dozen seasons of dazzling performances in Chicago, London, Off-Broadway in Tracy Letts’ Bug, again working with director Bullock.
Here he is playing Sam, the survivor of an auto accident in which the love of his life died at the wheel of his car, for reasons that cause him great guilt. His face has been scarred, and he wears a mask that covers half of it. Into this mix wanders a blunt and highly colorful exterminator named Karl, a German refugee who has a story of his own. Blunt? Says Karl in thick German accent: “There is no Jesus. There is no God.”
Steve does battle with Karl and with Sam, and it’s fierce. Monologues come at us, beautifully shaped and totally natural, and they are played to the hilt by Messrs. Rudd and Shannon and in the smaller role of Karl, Ed Asner makes a most welcome return to the stage. Karl is a far cry from Lou Grant, a gent with whom Mr. Asner has been associated for most of his career. He must revel in this opportunity to show us how much more there is to Asner than that cozy old goat.
Steve is looking for money to start his project, and it’s fun to watch him lose his religion while everyone else, including his wife, finds theirs. Once exposed to the man behind the mask, the one called Sam, she begins to question all that her husband had foisted on her, and to which she had clung because of her attraction to him. The stakes are high in this hot play, and its arguments come at us as tracer bullets from start to finish.
A fresh new voice takes a look at one of the world’s great current issues — the place of religion in our lives, the power and the glory, the control and the danger. Grace contains the sort of material that theatre was made for — if you see it, you’ll be discussing it long after its final curtain.
It is such a pleasure to spend an evening with four fine actors finally made available to a larger audience, to a playwright and director who have harnessed their considerable talents to create magic.
Grace is onstage thru January 6, 2013 at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, NYC. (bet. 6th & 7th Avenues)
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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