By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Over and over characters say, “I want to go back.” Back in time. Back in space. Well, okay, says playwright Craig Wright: Scene One rewinds the script. Dead bodies rise from the floor, dialogue unspools itself, the set revolves both clockwise and counterclockwise, actors walk backwards. But nothing a playwright can do can undo the damage done.
“Where would Jesus stay?” This proposed ad campaign for a chain of gospel-themed hotels, is the bright and naive $9 million idea of Steve (Paul Rudd) who has moved to Florida with his sweet wife Sara (Kate Arrington) to cash in on a golden opportunity bankrolled by a Swiss mystery man.
They find themselves living next door to Sam (Michael Shannon), a geniused, grief-stricken NASA scientist whose face was mangled in the car crash that killed his fiancé.
One set serves for their identical apartments and the action in each place is interwoven invisibly with the action in the other. This gets complicated when Sara and Sam, both lonely, both home all day, become entangled in a romantic friendship. It gets further complicated when Steve’s God-driven heaven collides with Sam’s science-driven universe. Who/what is to blame for what happens to us?
Both apartments are serviced by an exterminator, Karl (Ed Asner, returning to Broadway after twenty-nine years with a fake German accent) who tells a dreadful childhood story about hiding Jews from the Nazis; that he is an exterminator, whose job is to “get the little guys” who are hiding, is an irony pretty much lost in this production.
How you feel about any of the characters depends partly on your theological point of view. Rudd conveys Steve’s proselytizing fundamentalism convincingly, so much so that we are not persuaded by him—too smarmy, too opportunistic, too little religious fervor-- and it seems a one-dimensional reading of a complex role. Arrington’s Sara seems too shallow, too naïve to be interesting to somebody as worldly as Sam; Shannon is the standout in the cast, conveying both personal torment and theological curiosity. Asner’s atheistic Karl, who learns Wright’s lesson of forgiveness, is not helped by his fans’ applauding his entrances and exits.
Local audiences might remember a terrific production of Grace by the Luna Theatre four years ago. It’s a play made for an intimate space, requiring a cast of subtle actors and a director who loves irony and can tolerate ambiguity. Judging by the current Broadway production, the script is not served so well by giving it a starry cast and an immense stage. The play is still intriguing and provocative and startling, but it’s essentially Off-Broadway material, suffering, under Dexter Bullard’s direction, from size and slickness.
Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York. Tickets $32-132. Information: Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.