Thursday, May 28, 2015

New York Review: GRACE

New York Review: GRACE



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: or 212-239-6200.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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