After I watched Craig Wright's new play “Grace,” I ruminated on what makes a play great. Surely, this almost two-hour play without intermission boasts an unusual and effective set designed by Beowulf Boritt, lovingly lit by David Weiner. A large oval filled with a pale blue sky shines down on a small sofa, some chairs and a round table made of casual rattan. Several free-standing doors accent the abstract space, which takes us a few minutes to realize serves as two different apartments for people who share the stage.
“Grace” begins dramatically. Members of the cast, directed well by Dexter Bullard, assemble, and suddenly a young man shoots them all dead. We know “who dunnit” but not why. That certainly piques our interest, so when the perpetrator asks to go back to the beginning, we are relieved. The deceased characters rise, alive once again, and begin their story. A really provocative beginning!
The young man with gun is Steve, played with passionate charm and flair by Paul Rudd. Steve, a born-again Christian, and his wife Sara, the lovely Kate Arrington, have just moved from Minnesota to Florida. Steve is trying to live his dream to build Gospel Hotels with all the religious accoutrements. His millions of dollars in investment money is coming from a man he has never met. Sound familiar? Yes, very much like the recent story about the musical “Rebecca” !
In the neighboring apartment, Sam, who works at NASA, has been terribly scarred in a car accident, which killed his fiancé. Michael Shannon, who reminds me of Chris Walken, is convincingly withdrawn as a man in a plastic mask who wants to be alone. Sara, who is left alone all day by her God-and-Jesus-obsessed husband, Steve, does not want to be alone and persists in making Sam a friend. Sam and Sara fall in love; Steve's life unravels when he can't find his investor, is saddled with debt and fraud and finds out his wife is leaving him.
There's a fourth person, who provides both comic and tragic relief. Ed Asner is Karl, the pest control guy. Wearing a uniform of a shirt and shorts, sporting a large white beard, and carrying a tank with a hose, he looks funny, but tells them sadly that his wife is dying of cancer. He doesn't believe in God and calls Steve a Jesus Freak. Karl, although not Jewish, escaped from Germany after losing his family and suffering a searing experience during the Holocaust.
Now at this point you know the ending. And you know the title, “Grace,” which in Christian theology means God-given salvation, when you are called to forgive in a kindly fashion. The plot has been gripping, the characters sympathetic, but I do not know what the author wants us to understand. Is he making fun of religion? Is he saying that because Steve is so obsessed, he must kill everyone? A great play has some kind of theme, a true line that holds all the strands together. “Grace,” while entertaining and gripping and very well-acted falls short of that criteria. At the Cort Theatre.