There’s one thing you have to understand if you go to see Grace. The first scene is actually the last scene of the play. Steve (Paul Rudd) enters an apartment in a state of high dudgeon. He then murders Karl (Ed Asner), Sam (Michael Shannon), Sara (Kate Arrington), and commits suicide. In that order; until it isn’t. The action immediately gets rewound, and at the end of the play, is repeated. Basically, from the ending to the beginning, the scenes are shown in reverse order. I think. It’s all pretty confusing, especially if you tend to drift off at some point, which many audience members did on the night I saw the play.
We know what’s going to happen; we’re told why it happened. Steve has come from Minnesota with his wife, Sara. He thinks he’s going to strike it rich by being in a deal with an unknown European investor. He is, in the words of Karl, the exterminator, a “Jesus Freak.”
Karl has his own reasons for not being a believer, as he relates in a horrific story. Sara is left alone in the apartment, while Steve runs around attending to business. She befriends Sam, whose wife has died in the same catastrophic accident that caused him to lose the skin on half his face. Sam wears a Phantom of the Opera style mask to hide his disfigurement.
While the performances are all stellar, I can see this play rewritten for the movies, with box office stars in the roles. Rudd has moments of sheer Tom Cruise intensity; his excitement is the emotional equivalent of jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch. Shannon channels Christopher Walken; he’s mysterious, dangerous, and vulnerable all at the same time. Arrington is pure Anne Hathaway in her role, the diffident pretty girl who’s ready to boldly change her life. Asner would probably play his own part, because I don’t think anyone else could master the nearly incomprehensible German accent he employs.
There are discernible holes in the plotline. Why doesn’t Sara do volunteer work at her church? If she’s so bored, and wants desperately to have a child, why not practice her faith and teach a Sunday school class? The play, by Craig Wright, has been kicking around for a while, and at times, it feels like it’s been kicked too hard. The Beowulf Boritt set just doesn’t work for me; the fact that two apartments coexist and intertwine makes the action even more confusing. Director Dexter Bullard has skillfully kept the show moving, but sadly, it’s still boring enough in spots to put audience members to sleep- literally, in the case of the gentleman next to me. Nihilism is not inherently fascinating; who knew? For a better take on doing it all backwards, rent Memento.
Shannon has been praised, quite rightly, for his tightly wound performance and his mastery on stage. Acting students should attend this production to learn how well inner monologue can work in a performance. And he brilliantly captures the exasperation we’ve all felt while enduring the maddening “tech support” phone call we’ve experienced. Arrington is wistful and appealing; Asner is every bit the old pro, totally at ease.
But for me, this production is all about Paul Rudd. The fact that he’s gorgeous, and when shirtless quickly gives answer to the question “Why would a smart girl like Sara marry this yutz?”, is only part of the reason. I think there should be an especially hot section in hell for playwrights who take the easy way out by making all religious characters hypocrites and jerks. Blessedly, Rudd never gives in to the temptation of winking at the audience, conveying a “hey, I don’t really believe this stuff” impression. Even when Steve is at his most bombastic, Rudd stays true to the character; in a different scenario, he’d have us convinced. I watched closely to see if he would meet the challenge of repeating segments of the play, including reversing the action. He was flawless.
I have a special place in my heart for performers like Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, and Ed Asner, who have successful movie or TV careers, yet come back to the stage to hone their craft, and to experience the thrill of performing in front of an audience. There’s just nothing like live theater, even when it begins and ends with everyone dead.
Get discount tickets to Grace. Sign up for Goldstar.
Photos by Joan Marcus
138 West 48th Street
Note: No intermission, plan accordingly.
Through January 6, 2012
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.