Anyone alarmed by the unbending certitude of those who wear their religion as an emblem of righteousness will be drawn to "Grace," Craig Wright's creepily prescient comedy-drama of blood and Bibles. The play, a Woolly Mammoth world premiere, is both gripping and provocative, an unsettling look at the havoc that can be fomented by inflexible belief.
At the heart of the 95-minute piece -- brought to life by the precise direction of Michael John Garces and a splendid quartet of actors, each sculpting the contours of a character immersed in contradiction -- is an examination of how faith can become a twisted instrument of violence, how trying to divine God's will easily slips from an act of devotion to one of madness.
Wright, a former seminary student and successful television writer ("Six Feet Under") whose plays often explore fate and other universal mysteries, offers up his most accomplished stage work yet. Framed by a grisly crime and filled with tales of ghastly accidents and terrible betrayals, the play is a litany of the bad things that can happen to ordinary people. But thanks to Wright's highly developed antennae for absurdity, it is also funny, especially when lampooning a distinctively American style of religiosity, one that sees piety strictly for its profit potential.
"Grace" takes place in a rise-and-shine, ticky-tacky America where down-on-their-luck couples hide their disappointment behind thin smiles and thinner walls. Steve (David Fendig) and Sara (Jennifer Mendenhall) are a sad-sack husband and wife from Minnesota who have moved to the Florida coast in a desperate grab for wealth. Though they are evangelical Christians, their antiseptic condo unit, as rendered by the clever set designer James Kronzer, is a kind of model apartment for soullessness. In the agreeably intimate confines of the Warehouse Theater, plastic-sounding religious rock wafts through a living room furnished in what look like the bland closeout items from warehouse outlet stores.
Steve, played appealingly by Fendig as a perpetual post-adolescent, harbors a far-fetched dream fueled by religious fervor: turning run-down motels into gospel-themed inns. Steve is the play's biggest booster of the Lord -- and its least spiritual character. He thinks of God as his job counselor, calling him to the hospitality business. " 'The Passion' is the biggest-selling movie of all time," Steve excitedly tells Sara, invoking, inaccurately, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." "Imagine doing that with hotels!" He claims that he's hooked a Swiss financier to bankroll his first property, though the check and the money man both prove elusive. Maybe they don't exist.
But the first indication that Steve is a man of profound disturbances occurs before a word of "Grace" is uttered. In the play's opening sequence, he is holding a gun and standing over the bodies of Sara and a neighbor, Sam (Paul Morella); the murders are reenacted as if a film is being run in reverse, and the events leading up to the homicides are then recounted in flashback. The killings are central and at the same time peripheral to what happens in "Grace." In a sense, the play concerns the things you learn about suffering that can't be gleaned from a crime scene.
All through the play, Wright serves up portraits of people buffeted by chance and by choice, by mishaps inconsequential and unimaginable. There is a Shavian dimension to the characters and their expounding on such issues as the existence of God. Sam, for instance, has been badly disfigured in a car accident, a crash that decapitated his fiancee; if he had not forced her to drive on that occasion, the tragedy might have been averted. Karl (Michael Willis), the condo's pest exterminator, reveals that as a boy in wartime Germany, his family hid a number of Jews; at the prodding of some soldiers, he was forced to betray one of them, a little girl he loved. Manic Steve is afflicted by an odd itching disorder, an ailment he experiences as if it were one of the Ten Plagues. The disclosures have a randomness about them, and yet the characters' stories bind them to one another. Sara, miserably unhappy in her marriage to Steve, finds in Sam's grief a seductive power; in the play's most poignant scene, she asks him whether she can unwrap the bandage covering his ruined face, and he hesitantly agrees. The always watchable Mendenhall turns the act into one of astounding intimacy, and when the task has been completed, the expression of fear and relief on Morella's features suggests that something tender and important has passed between the characters.
Garces, who also directed Wright's 9/11 play "Recent Tragic Events," is an expert navigator of the tricky pivots in the script. Wright is in love with tangents, with offbeat moments that trigger observations about the meaning of things. The dramatist, mercifully, does not overplay his hand here, and the director and actors are marvelous collaborators, propelling the story with a convincing subtlety. Morella conveys Sam's rage and despair wonderfully, with equal doses of fire and ice. Willis brings great deadpan brio to his tell-it-like-it-is Karl. And Mendenhall's smart, soulful Sara makes an endearing claim on the heart.
The irony of "Grace" is that despite Steve's pious pleadings -- "I'm not a 'knower,' I'm a believer" -- he possesses no reservoir of moral courage and no capacity for mercy. Though you've been tipped off early to the hideous denouement, you hold out hope for a deus ex machina, someone to extinguish Steve's fury and save Sam and Sara. Alas, Wright says, through no power on Earth -- not even the prayers of the born-again -- does anyone get that kind of second chance.
Grace, by Craig Wright. Directed by Michael John Garces. Set, James Kronzer; lighting, Lisa L. Ogonowski; sound, Neil McFadden; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; original music, Cristian Amigo. Approximately 1 hour 35 minutes. Through Dec. 19 at Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.