Is there room on Broadway right now for a play touching on religious belief? Grace, Craig Wright’s attention-sustaining, 100-minute evening in which a committed Christian couple interacts with a science-abiding neighbour, does not quite supply the answer. Does the skilful Wright think that a theological show-down would have struck audiences as too earnest? Should full-scale debate, especially these days, be left to politicians?
Wright establishes from the downbeat that his drama, which was seen in Chicago in 2006, with the same director, Dexter Bullard, will be more about a domestic conflict than about more cosmic concerns. The ending is immediately indicated: Steve, the Christian husband portrayed by Paul Rudd, sits in his coastal Florida condo with a gun.
Flashback to some weeks earlier: Steve returns home to his wife, Sara, telling her that his scheme to establish a “gospel hotel” has attracted a wealthy Swiss investor. But almost as soon as an elderly, German-born pest exterminator, Karl, pays them a visit, Steve is prying into the man’s ungodly beliefs.
Neither Karl nor the MIT-trained neighbour, Sam, is much interested in having a full-scale metaphysical discussion. Given such resistance, Grace surrenders its potential to be intellectually challenging and evolves into a narrative of betrayal: Sara is getting too cosy with Sam. The staging, in which adjacent, identical apartments are conveyed by a single set, is ingenious.
Every member of the cast – which includes Michael Shannon as Sam, Kate Arrington as Sara, and Ed Asner as Karl – is expert at eking out a laugh. The audience purrs with special pleasure each time Asner gets off a dig at Floridian vulgarity. And Asner has a touching speech in which he tells us of what, as a boy, he and his Jews-sheltering family were forced to do by the Nazis in his native Hamburg. But did Wright have to over-egg the irony by making the character an exterminator?
To his assignment, Shannon brings the superb fervour and deadpan humour he has shown in such movies and TV programmes as Revolutionary Road and Boardwalk Empire. Rudd, whom it is welcome to see back onstage, has the most difficult job: he must persuade us that underneath his gung-ho salesman’s eagerness lurks a nascent psychopath. He hasn’t quite nailed the trajectory, but I suspect that a few weeks further into the run he will.