Like the Off Broadway blockbuster Detroit playing a few blocks away, Grace (through Jan 6) depicts a couple coping with recession. But playwright Craig Wright takes his portrait further, exploring the psychoemotional underpinnings of financial failure, linking it with evangelism—religious and economic systems rooted unsustainably in unshakable faith. Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington play a married Midwestern couple recently relocated to Florida; he's closing a deal with investors to open a series of Gospel-themed hotels for believers. (The slogan: "Where would Jesus stay?") They call themselves "committed Christians"; their condo's German exterminator (a hammy Ed Asner) calls them "Jesus freaks" while debating theology with Rudd, one of many such fights the budding real estate developer (whose ringtone is Handel's “Hallelujah” Chorus) will pick so he can employ his carefully rehearsed sophistry. Asner rebuts Rudd's argument with a nauseous story of things he saw the Nazis do during the war—and the things the Nazis made him do. Every character seems to have such a horror story; the world of the play is an awful one. "Being human sucks," Rudd admits.
It sucks especially for Michael Shannon, playing the couple's neighbor, a computer whiz who recently lost his fiancee in a car accident, as well as the flesh on half of his face; for most of the play he hides his disfigurement behind a plastic mask. In Shannon's first real scene, he troubleshoots with tech support a problem with iPhoto. It feels like an in-joke: Wright's last play Mistakes Were Made was a one-man show starring Shannon, most of which he spent shouting into telephones. Here, his computer problems provoke the great actor to a tour-de-force of uncoiled tragicomic rage, which he exchanges in other scenes for a haunted and hesitating wryness. Arrington, the lonely housewife next door, softens his sad and angry facade; soon they become friends and then more, cuckolding Rudd, already castrated and enraged by his disintegrating development deal.
Director Dexter Bullard stages the play strangely but smartly. Expertly choreographed, it opens at the end, acted in reverse: bodies on the floor rise up, gunshot by gunshot, to beg not to be killed, to walk backwards and deliver their lines in reverse-order as the pistol-brandishing Rudd rants irrationally about love and disappointment. (It's great to see Rudd so lively, freed from Hollywood's straightman straightjacket.) The absurdity of the impossible action highlights Wright's idea that it's impossible to start over, to get it right. Then the play cuts back a few months; Shannon and the couple live in what the Playbill calls "identical condos," but there is only one set, which the two sets of characters occupy simultaneously, underscoring the loneliness that haunts them, the isolation from others—even those right in front of them. Grace strives for hope amid such sadness, for a way in which maybe the world might not be so bad when we're here for each other. But, knowing the play's inevitable ending, you recognize that everything here, even fleeting happiness, just leads to death. The backdrop is an enormous oval, filled with clouds and sky. Is this the eye of God watching over the action? Or just empty heavens? It doesn't really matter: either way, everybody's fucked.
Photo Joan Marcus