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Grace

nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
October 11, 2012

Craig Wright’s Grace opens with a suicidal gunshot in a shadowy room. From the suicide, the first scene moves backwards, we slowly realize, action by action and line by line reversing through a monologue whose emotional anguish is clear, even with its structure inverted, and through two other people getting shot--and then, the play snaps into bright daylight and forwards narrative, and a journey back toward the end we’ve already seen. It feels like an intentional inversion of the principle of Chekhov’s gun: Chekhov notes that if there’s a gun onstage in act 1 it should go off in act 2--Wright starts with the shot, and the rest of the play attempts to show us how the gun got onstage.

At the beginning, Steve and Sara have just taken a giant step toward Steve’s dream: a chain of gospel-themed motels, complete with on-site baptismal fonts and WiFi. Guided by their faith, the married couple has sold their business in Minnesota and come south scouting locations; Steve’s financial backer has just approved the purchase of the first property. But when the money to close the deal doesn’t arrive as promised, the couple is in limbo: nearly penniless, with workers eager to get paid, and trapped in their suburban Florida motel. The bored, frustrated, and lonely Sara, who’d been counting on the money not just for their business but for the financial stability that would allow them to have a baby, starts to befriend their next-door neighbor, Sam, whom they’ve learned all about from their very chatty exterminator, Karl, an elderly German immigrant who relishes telling a sad story. (It’s via Karl’s alarmist stories, in fact, that the idea of having a gun first makes its way into Steve’s mind.)  Sam’s very sad story involves a seemingly perfect life--high-flying career, good looks, beautiful fiancee--that is blown to pieces by a car accident that kills the fiancee and leaves Sam permanently scarred.

Steve begins the play buoyant in his faith, overflowing with certainty so that he can’t help quizzing everyone around him on their beliefs in a mock-friendly fashion that nonetheless feels like a challenge. (One of these exchanges leads to Karl’s telling his own tragic life story, a Holocaust narrative that feels shoehorned in to the play, from its portentous revelation early on to its return later in the piece; another puts Steve and Sam at odds just when Sam is about to do Steve an enormous good turn.) But as things fail to come together for Steve--not only is his hotel dream in jeopardy, but he’s suffering from mysterious physical symptoms--and as Sara grows closer to Sam, Steve’s trust in God, and Sara’s trust in their marriage, starts to fray around the edges.

And, of course, we know where this is going to end up: we’re waiting for things to turn bad; we’re waiting for the story to catch up with its already-predestined ending. The structural contrivance resonates effectively on one level: one of the underlying themes of the play is the nature of time and space, and of fate: Did time and the world have an identifiable beginning? Does predestination, God’s plan, control events both happy and tragic? How much control do we ever have over our progress through life, and how much responsibility--in terms of pride or guilt--can, or must, we take for our actions toward others?  Steve is a man of faith and Sam one of science; his work for NASA involves trying to bring data successfully across the almost unimaginable distances of deep space.

As Wright tweaks linear time (the device of the opening scene recurs later as well), he and director Dexter Bullard also do so with the play’s physical space, overlapping and interpenetrating its locations. The whole thing takes place in a motel suite, simultaneously Steve and Sara’s home and Sam’s identical suite next door. Sam may be sitting at the table and Sara on the couch, only a few physical feet away but narratively not in the same room.  Beowulf Boritt’s slightly dizzying but very clever set is constantly, subtly, rotating; the doors (one to the exterior, one to some sort of patio or balcony) pivot on one turntable and the interiors of the room on another, so perspective and relational geometry are constantly shifting.

But on another level, the structural contrivance, the fact that we know the central Christian character will ultimately become a murderer, can’t help but cast a shadow over the meaning and sincerity of his faith throughout. And the question of the genuineness of faith here is puzzling. I’m not sure whether Steve is meant to be a man whose very sincere faith--faith that did save him from some terrible life choices--is tested past what it can endure, or a small-minded, blinkered “Jesus freak” (as Karl calls him), who’s used religion as a crutch to avoid facing his own failures. That ambiguity isn’t helped by the casting of Paul Rudd. True, his effortless charm and unwavering likeability help to paper over the cracks in Steve and Sara’s marriage, and Steve’s flashes of scary anger, for a long time. There’s no question this guy could have talked a bank into selling him a big commercial property with almost no money down. But his evangelizing often feels more like the setup for a joke than a serious attempt to change beliefs--or, at least, if he is sincere, it doesn’t seem very likely that he’ll succeed given his choice of attempted converts, who are both more than a match for him. Karl’s rhetorical flourishes and elaborate stories (Ed Asner relishes every moment perhaps a little too much, though the role doesn’t really allow for subtlety) outdo Steve in grandeur, and Sam’s stalwart struggle to regain control of his life has infinitely more gravity (especially in the hands of Michael Shannon, who’s almost visibly pulling himself away from the abyss every moment).

But it’s not just Rudd; I think Wright treats the journeys of his atheist characters, and especially of their moments of grace found outside of conventional religious structures, more respectfully than his religious ones. Karl and Sam have both faced challenges much greater than what’s facing Steve now, and they, in their nonbelief, have weathered them and even found glints of hope--yet Steve crumbles so quickly and completely, not just losing his faith but becoming a murderer. And Sara’s beliefs remain uninterrogated almost entirely, which makes her sometimes seem puppyish and naive despite Kate Arrington’s warmth and sincerity. We see her doubting her marriage, but not how that doubt might conflict or complicate her faith.

There is an incisive argument to be made--an argument that Sam even comes close to making, at one point--about the difference between faith and religion, about how the rigidity of institutional religion ultimately fails to instill the resilience that may come through grappling with one’s own beliefs, through living through tragedy without the (false) comfort of certainty in its place in a larger plan. But the game feels rigged here--both by the structure of the narrative and the way Steve and Sara’s beliefs are depicted--and that undercuts the impact of the play, and the argument. It’s meant to be a lesson, I think, that Steve snaps just as Sam and Karl, and perhaps even Sara, are finding those moments of grace of their own, but the fact that he falls so far, so quickly, serves more to question the seriousness of his beliefs than to emphasize the seriousness of their loss.