NEW YORK--Watching “Grace” all those years ago in the spartan confines of the Warehouse on 7th St. NW, one might never have imagined Broadway in its future. Don’t get me wrong:dramatist Craig Wright’s taut rumination on the tragic fallout from a surfeit of belief in a righteously commercial path held audiences in its grip when Woolly Mammoth Theatre staged its world premiere in the fall of 2004. (Read the review.)
But the occasions on which a new play has an impressive debut and then goes into veritable hibernation (it was produced again, at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2006) are far more the norm than the fate that has all of a sudden befallen “Grace”: the play opened Thursday night at Broadway’s Cort Theatre, with a cast that includes Paul Rudd, Ed Asner and, most thrillingly, the bracingly effective Michael Shannon.
I’d love to report that “Grace,” guided on Broadway by director Dexter Bullard, feels just as trenchant as it did back in the Warehouse, in director Michael John Garces’s wrenching, slowly-simmering production, featuring Jennifer Mendenhall, David Fendig, Michael Willis and Paul Morella. On the vaster platform of a Broadway stage, however, “Grace” comes across as a smaller work. And though the handsome Rudd is a thoroughly engaging presence, he’s more gifted as an ironist, as demonstrated by his work in the movies of Judd Apatow and others. He’s not ideal for the darker role of a zealot who finds delusional comfort in a vision of God as a useful guide in real estate.
Structured as a prelude to a massacre — the play begins with a Pinteresque notion, giving us the ending before we glimpse the events that trigger the killings — “Grace” asks us to enter the suffocating world of Steve (Rudd) and Sara (Kate Arrington), a born-again couple from Minnesota, who’ve relocated to Florida to pursue Steve’s dream of founding a chain of gospel-themed hotels. Steve’s belief in God’s plan for him, however, comes to seem as foolish as his faith in an unseen Swiss investor who supposedly has agreed to bankroll Steve’s renovation of a defunct Central Florida hotel.
In 100 efficient minutes, “Grace” details the unraveling of Steve’s dream as Sara falls into the arms of a neighbor, a NASA scientist mutilated in a car accident that claimed the life of his fiancee. Shannon’s portrayal of the grieving, sullen Sam gives the evening an emotional spine; it’s Sam who seems the candidate far more justified for exploding. (Asner shows up in a funny, sure-handed turn as a Christian-German pest exterminator with a memory of Nazi horrors).
Eight years ago, extreme religious fervor, and the force it exerts on arenas of secular American life such as politics and business, seemed a fresher topic. But it isn’t time, exactly, that has passed “Grace” by. What the production in the Cort lacks is our visceral, collective sense of being trapped in Steve’s creepy vision of a salvation sealed by closing costs.
“Grace,” by Craig Wright. Directed by Dexter Bullard.
At Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York.
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