By Tyler Plosia | New York City
The first thing that struck me about Grace was the set design. This shouldn’t seem exceptional to anyone who’s seen a play without curtains; an early audience is provided the opportunity to examine the landscape before witnessing the action. But the set of Grace (a few jade-colored sofa chairs, a kitchen table, a shadowy moon for a background and an overhead fan that spins idly throughout most of the play) was curious beyond its content. The arrangement of the furniture weighed on my mind. The chairs were angled oddly: they were arranged in such a way so that if they were all occupied by actors, almost no one would be facing each other. This seemed to be antithetical to the traditionally confrontational nature of theater, and it raised questions in my mind about characters I hadn’t been introduced to yet. Will this be a play about people who don’t know each other, and will it be the story of their collective journey into mutual understanding? Or will it be a play about people who know each other only ostensibly, who occupy each other’s space without any ability to sympathize with one another?
Grace revolves around three characters. Steve (played by Paul Rudd) is a hotel-renovating evangelical Christian. He’s married to Sara (Kate Arrington, primarily a stage actress), a housewife and fellow Christian – albeit a less maniacal one – whose seeming naïveté belies her strength in evaluating the people around her. The two move to Florida, next door to Sam (Michael Shannon), a disfigured man whose backstory is a tragic one. The action of the play, and the audience interest in it (or lack thereof), ultimately relies on the relationships between these three characters and how they’re acted out. (Ed Asner appears briefly as a more convincing exterminator than some exterminators I’ve met; unfortunately his character is doomed to a fate of thematic relevance but little in the way of actual story importance).
The acting ranges from solid to spectacular. Shannon is predictably powerful, and his is a less psychologically-damaged role than most of us are probably used to seeing him in. Arrington isn’t flawless, and she betrays her mostly-theatrical experience in some occasional over-acting, but she is never subpar; when I needed to believe in her empathy, when it mattered most, she was subtle and strong. Paul Rudd left me wondering. Rudd is more understated than he is in any of the film work I’ve seen him in, and he is given the task of embodying the most disagreeable of Grace’s characters. And yet he doesn’t trip into the usual pitfall of such a task – he doesn’t attempt to humanize. Some may disagree with me here – some would surely say he does humanize the character – but I find it to be an effective and curious move, especially in a play that lives in the little spaces between human beings but does little to explain how these spaces come to be in the first place.
Craig Wright’s script is enigmatic, and not always in a satisfying or stimulating way. Grace breathes with the characters that inhabit it, but it doesn’t give them space to create their relationships. The most intricate relationship – the private, but not secret, friendship between Sara and Sam – is established before the two characters share a scene alone together. This is puzzling for such an apparently character-based play. On the other hand, the script has a number of intriguing structural irregularities. For example: the last chronological scene is the first one presented to us, only it is performed entirely in reverse – as if we opened up a DVD’s scene selection menu, chose the end credits of the film, and then rewinded in real time all the way through the climax. In this particular case, the climax is a bleak, tragic end to a play advertised as a dark comedy. This decision is also puzzling in its way, because a structural choice like this would probably be most effective in a more plot-driven story. Here it does only two things: it shows us the end at the beginning and then it forces us to wonder how we’re going to arrive at this end. In Grace, story and characterization are not only secondary to theme; they’re subservient to it.
The message is loud and clear, and in that way Grace is successful. But it is possible Wright suffers from the same one-track thinking as some of his fundamentalist characters. It’s possible that writing so burdened by thematic weight cannot help but create characters a notch above robotic and a plot that leaves something to be desired.
There is a pivotal scene wherein Sam has demanded Sara leave his apartment – and leave him alone altogether. She refuses, and, with all the existential uncertainty she can muster, she asks, “if we’re here beside each other, we must be here for each other, at least a little bit, right?” In the world of Grace, at least, people do exist for each other. They do come closer together; the jade-colored sofa seats come to face each other over time. But tragedy has a way of making this void even before it is allowed to begin. Wright may ask the question a bit too loudly, but that isn’t necessarily to say the question is not worth asking: does it matter that the jade-colored sofa chairs are facing in the right direction when they’ll all be unoccupied eventually?
Through January 6th at Cort Theater.