Michael Shannon, unique staging are saving graces

October 4, 2012

For a show with such a tame premise, “Grace,” a Broadway play ostensibly about Minnesotan religious followers, quickly becomes surreally vicious.

The Minnesotans are Steve (Paul Rudd) and Sara (Kate Arrington), a young married couple who hope to open a chain of biblically themed hotels in Florida. This plot point provides the material for numerous puns, like in the potential names for the chain: “The Upper Rooms” and “The New Restament.”

While Steve and Sara work on their project, their neighbor Sam (Michael Shannon) and amusing exterminator Karl (Ed Asner) enter the fray.

The staging of this four-person play is innovative: the whole set, with all the trappings of a cheap Florida condominium, is placed on a slowly rotating dais. Yet there are far stranger aspects of the setting.

Playwright Craig Wright’s conception of “Grace” often requires two scenes to be performed onstage at the same time. In this way, Sam’s condo is not only identical to Steve and Sara’s condo — it occupies the exact same space.

To the credit of director Dexter Bullard, this device never distracts; instead, it frequently adds a sense of humor or drama to the proceedings. “Grace” also includes sections where time reverses: the characters have a conversation going forward, and after a dramatic stop-and-freeze they perform the scene backwards. Far from annoying, these moments are impressive feats of stagecraft.

Shannon is simply exceptional. Even Rudd provides his character with more substance than his usual happy-go-lucky boyfriend role; he turns Steve into a genial Jesus salesman with a hint of menacing chauvinism. But Kate Arrington fails to remain consistent, and Ed Asner’s jokes are often difficult to distinguish from his serious moments.

Most disappointing of all is the writing. Wright’s dialogue is very strong — alternately witty and affecting — but the plot feels vague. It is always a struggle to satisfactorily resolve multiple character arcs. “Grace” takes the easy way out more often than not, employing unrealistic coincidences to prompt melodramatic speeches. “Grace” is a play about faith, but it does not come to any conclusion about finding or losing one’s convictions.

However, despite an unsatisfying denouement, “Grace” does a superb job with complicated staging, and Michael Shannon’s performance alone is worth the price of a ticket.

“Grace” opens tonight at the Cort Theater, 138 W. 34 St. and plays through Jan. 6. For tickets and more information, see graceonbroadway.com.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 4 print edition. Clio McConnell is theater/books editor. Email her at cmcconnell@nyunews.com.

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