Grace on Broadway with Paul Rudd, Ed Asner, Michael Shannon
If you are an atheist, an agnostic, you despise so-called religious Republicans who are actually hypocrites, are intellectually gifted or are a native New Yorker, run to see Craig Wright’s play Grace, now at the Cort Theater. If you deem yourself a true follower of Christ spiritually (anti the political religious right) the play will resonate with you to a point and then, perhaps, as it did for me, it might skew off into a spiritual Neverland, making you wonder if the twisted logic was the playwright’s intent or his attempt to enliven the theatrical experience and create an uber-drama. Either way, the play, for me, became hyperbolic contrivance which made the ending/beginning/ending diminish the suspense and realism and crimped the development and emotional power of the characters and their relationships.
Steve (Paul Rudd) is a Christian who with Sara, his Christian wife (Kate Arrington) have moved to Florida where Steve is waiting to manifest the financial arrangements for a deal he has made with an investor. As the play unfolds, we see the relationship between loving husband and wife that appears to be perfect grows a few developing wrinkles as Steve waits for the financing to come through and Sara is left alone to her own devices which include becoming friendly with car accident disfigured, next door condo neighbor, Sam. Thrown into the mix for good pleasure is the friendly German exterminator guy, an unrecognizable (the audience didn’t applaud him when he entered as they did Rudd because he WAS THE CHARACTER and not Ed Asner) absolutely flawless Ed Asner as naturalized American citizen, Karl.
Steve’s success with his marriage and his relationship with Sara unravels as his business plans explode his dreams. He confronts a financial meltdown, litigation and loss of his wife. At the worst possible moment, Sara tells Steve she is leaving him for Sam because she and Sam love each other. During the build up to the crisis, there are critical lightening flashes and the actors freeze momentarily. These are pivotal moments where events could have gone differently, the playwright suggests, yet they did not because of…whatever: grace? lack of grace? the characters’ choices? Does it matter? These breaks “da da” add to the play’s pretension and reveal a muddled and unclear flirtation with theme that never blossoms into a true relationship What we should see and don’t is that the permutations of choices for the characters are innumerable, but the plot feels so fixed and artificial that the lightening flashes/turning points are woefully weak. They actually detract from the play’s import.
This is partly due to the playwright’s choice to begin the play at the end which diffuses curiosity and engagement and the suspense that the actors with their superb talents manage to create. The play’s construction as it stands is faulty because the playwright begins at a conventional high point and turns it on its head, making it a low point with Steve’s shooting himself at the outset. Why does the playwright begin with the ending? This is not Pinter’s Betrayal, a seamlessly constructed play which used the same contrivance of chronological event reversal with great subtly and integration of theme. Grace‘s chronological event reversal, then move to flashback and forward movement of events doesn’t really work with the thematic structure given the content. The obfuscation for the sake of clarity boggles. Is this or isn’t this the playwright’s comprehension of grace/lack of grace unfolding from missed opportunities and poor decisions?
What continues after Steve’s opening suicide is a sort of cinematic reversal backwards. Rudd as Steve takes backward steps. The plot reverses the thread to Rudd/Steve shooting Sara which happened a minute before his own suicide. Then Rudd/Steve and Sara (Kate Arrington) literally step backward and next we see Steve shoot Sam which happened a minute before he shot Sara. Again, there are lightening flashes and character freezes and the stage darkens and the setting moves to a month or so prior. Now we are in a present moving flashback construct designed to show us what events occurred to lead to these three deaths. From then on, the action is forward and linear and we see how Steve and the others spun out of control in a series of pathetic events where they act upon each other to create their own dance of death. Even the hapless, atheistic Karl falls prey to Rudd’s graceless shooting spree at the moment when Karl is perhaps open to receiving grace, ready to believe after experiencing what is tantamount to a miraculous redemptive action, that, if not God, “there may be something” that caused the action. So Karl, too, ends up melodramatically dead. However, the flashback thread leaves off at the juncture where Steve/Rudd is pointing the gun. We know what follows. We have already seen it in the play’s opening. Despite our longing for a deus ex machina or Godly intervention to stay Steve’s mania for vengeance and an end to his faithless hopelessness, no one here receives grace. They die. (We don’t know if neighbors reported the shots, called 911 and in the intervening half hour three were saved. We do know that Rudd/Steve, who pointed the gun to his head is certainly dead.)
When thinking about grace and attempting to understand such a complicated concept, I am reminded of the brilliant film Nights of Cabiria. The character of Cabiria at the film’s end has experienced terrible treatment at the hands of fate or God. The man who was to marry her has robbed her and was going to kill her, though he does not, though she begs for death. Instead he leaves her alone with her utter shame and hopelessness. Destitute, alone as a former prostitute, she has nothing to fall back on, no family, education, nothing. She considers suicide, but something within her retreats: the mystery occurs. She receives the grace not to end her life, though she has every reason to do so. As she walks to who knows where in a dark wood, she comes across young people who are dancing, singing and celebrating a birthday. Through her tears, she receives whatever it is, grace (?) to smile and join them at their invitation. She is, her life is and we know she has received the grace to make it to the next day and the next and the next. Wow! No religious overtones, no religious sentiment, but you get it and you understand the human condition perfectly.
Frankly, I found if very hard to understand the playwright’s portrayal of Steve’s faith and Christianity connected with the lack of grace bestowed at the play’s beginning/end. I certainly cannot argue that his shootings and suicide have taken them all to a better world. That is not manifest in the play. The characterization of Steve is a conundrum of illogic. The irrationality a facile, thin and overused point of character taken from the mold of three decades of violent acts from Steven King’s villains. This is a mash, a combination of pedantic stereotyping of what liberals think the religious right are capable of and what their Christianity is all about.
Unfortunately, that’s too superficial, too pat and the stereotype too obvious and contrived. The dire warning fits into a precast mold. The characters’ “Christianity” is a glaring fault of the play upon which everything hinges. It didn’t have to be. Why include it? The playwright has given the logic for Steve, the everyman, to commit suicide: wife leaving him, business dreams destroyed, money robbed, defrauded by his own naive actions which were prompted by “faith,” facing litigation and the possibility of jail. He faces complete ruination. It’s enough to suicide the mildest of men. What the playwright has thrown into the mix is that fundamental Christians think “this isn’t supposed to happen to a person of faith.” Yet when it does and grace doesn’t come through, nor God, nor love, nor anything redemptive, he-Steve can’t handle it and exacts his revenge. His “faith” all along was a crutch, insincere or his killer nature buried by his “faith” surfaces. Enter the wacko religious mother in Carrie; enter the murderous religious villains whose “Christianity” has set them off to kill. It’s an atheist’s wet dream that not only is there no God, but the no God really sucks at being a no God. Well, somehow, this is all too obviously constructed for effect and it smells of the paint of too much puppet master and not with the apparent seamlessness of brilliant writing.
Because the characterization of Steve is so flawed, all the more magnificent praise goes to Paul Rudd, who with his SHEER GENIUS of talent and skill makes this wooden stereotype real, likable and amiable. Paul Rudd, courageously took on a part with so many holes, yet fills them up with back story and rationale to convey the character’s vitality. He makes what is nearly impossible, possible; he makes believable the character’s preaching and living his faith. Rudd portrays Steve’s belief his relationship with Sara lovingly yet with an undercurrent of fear. With great realism he portrays Steve’s belief in God and his hope. And Rudd “keeps the faith” until events spiral beyond his control, and we get to see Rudd’s brilliance as he spools down the character’s faith, sanity and hope. Of course, he is helped by the acting marvels of the rest of the cast, Asner, Shannon and Arrington who are all terrific. They make the play. If not for them and the director, Dexter Bullard, HELP ME JESUS!!!
Again, whether it is the fault of the plot which forces Rudd to leap to a tailspin downward, or how the character of Sara is drawn to skew precipitously downward in concerted contrivance, or the scene leading up to the shooting…these especially just didn’t make sense to me given the context of Christian faith (which is so paper thin here…that only Rudd’s in the moment breathing onstage makes it alive). And it is not enough to say that violence doesn’t make sense because it does. The playwright has stacked the deck to make sure that as everyman, Steve, has good cause to kill himself and his wife and everyone in his surroundings, regardless of whether he is angry at God or he just snapped. Except he is a Christian, and a serious one at that. He spouts off heavy spiritual montages in his urgency to convert or at least jangle the sensibilities of Karl and Sam toward faith. This incongruence between these speeches and his final actions echoes badly. It rings false. And that is an uber problem that the playwright never resolves in Steve’s characterization.
At the crux of the problem to me appears to be the playwright’s understanding of God, Christianity and the nature of the conversion that has happened to Steve and Sara. It is twisted and opaque to the point that the characters wander in the plot. The convolution is not in what they believe, but in that they were drawn incompletely to fit mechanisms in a contrivance. Da, da. Drum roll, “These are the wacked Christians.” It is OK to show wacked Christians. But for a writer to be pretentious, obvious and illogical about it is doing one’s craft a disservice. I certainly did not think that their faith as portrayed was at fault or insincere. In fact it was because of their sincerity of faith that I found the ending events written for “tragic” effect. It was a rush to create the spectacle of violence that led me to think that not only did the playwright not dig concepts of faith, spiritual conversion, the whole nine yards, he rendered it to fit his own notions. Unfortunately, the play suffers hugely, the characterizations are wobbly and illogical: Steve is a pathetic stereotype and his formerly timid wife, suddenly and within a month’s time, turns into a freewheeling, directed, courageous woman who renounces her vows and leaves Steve for Sam free of guilt, fear or self-reproach. This is rather a huge stretch, “Saaay what?”
Well, anyway, many in the audience should enjoy the characterizations because they easily fit into stereotypes. The obfuscation of faith, conversion and spiritual Christianity is so skewed and unclear, it will continue to promote the average audience member’s lack of understanding of Christianity/spiritual conversion, faith, agape love, etc. (See my opening sentence.) It is a boon for anyone who has a hatchet on for the Christian religion, is an agnostic or has had a few terrible run ins with hypocritical religionists and political religionists who are staunchly religious for purely monetary reasons.
Thank God for great direction. Thank God for brilliant performances by genius actors. That is GRACE, indeed! I so appreciated the efforts of Rudd, Asner, Shannon and Arrington who is lovely. She made real how she fell for Sam, even though I didn’t understand how she had the courage to leave Steve in a month’s time. Arrington, a magician, made me overlook that tremendous flaw in the play. The other actors’ logic and humanism made me over look the stumbling script. I knew Rudd, Asner and Shannon were absolutely great actors. I just didn’t know how great until I saw how they could take a play and characters that are ill conceived and create gems of life. Bravo to the cast and the director. You are truly masters of the craft! There is no praise great enough for the cast’s work and the director’s in how they transformed a lackluster, convulsed script into memorable theater. I will remember the phenomenal acting and direction. The play? Jesus H. Christ. It is forgettable. Do I sound confused?