Craig Wright’s new play, “Grace,” invites debate on big issues, like the existence of God and the power of faith. But it does so in a creepy-funny way that keeps auds guessing about the scribe’s intentions, the director’s attitude and the characters’ sanity. A dream cast (Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington and Ed Asner) brings so much humanity to these oddball characters — a young evangelical Christian couple, their reclusive neighbor and a grumpy exterminator — that even an atheist would send up a prayer that these lost souls will find their faith. God knows they need it.
The play opens on a gruesome scene that one character finds so disturbing he keeps replaying it, trying to reverse time and stop these terrible events from happening. Helmer Dexter Bullard shrewdly stages this intriguing moment in an absurdist style that suggests anything might be possible in this strange universe.
That sense of the unknown is reinforced by Beowulf Boritt’s stunning set — a backdrop of a heavenly blue sky that shifts from dawn to dusk, against a bland modern living room simultaneously inhabited by a young married couple and their reclusive next-door neighbor.
The feeling that something’s slightly off here continues through the more realistically staged scenes between Steve (Rudd, making us fall in love with a hateful character) and his mousey wife, Sara (Arrington, who sensitively confers some dignity on this little ninny).
These young marrieds made the great trek from Minnesota to the Florida shore so Steve can establish a chain of faith-based Gospel hotels. After getting the news that a Swiss moneybags is bankrolling Steve’s dream, they fall to their knees in ecstatic prayer that includes some weird speaking in tongues. Before this dumb deal falls through, as it must, Rudd makes it oh-so-clear that Steve is a greedy little hustler, notwithstanding his honest belief that he has received a blessing directly from God. (“I talked to the stars and they talked back.”)
Arrington gets her chance to give silly Sara more intelligence and depth when she starts paying visits to Sam, their mysterious neighbor, who spends his days wrapped in bandages. In his terrific Broadway debut, Shannon plays Sam as the archetypal cynic who comes by his atheism honestly, having lost both his fiancee and his face in a road accident. Although Steve can’t stop himself from preaching to this poor guy, a NASA scientist who would love to transcend time and space in his current condition, Sara seeks and finds the human connections between them.
Before he adopts a more earnest voice, Wright (“Six Feet Under”) assigns his sharpest lines to the atheists in this play. Shannon is deeply moving when Sam begins to unburden himself to Sara. But he’s also hysterically funny when he cuts through his neighbors’ pious cant with some educated zingers.
Sam’s witticisms are topped, though, by Asner’s droll delivery of all the “sad, sad stories” that Karl, the gloomy exterminator, collects. This tough old bird sizes up Steve and Sara as “Jesus freaks” and generously shares the tenets of his own faith: “One, there’s no Jesus. … Two, there’s no God. … Three, mind your own business, and everything works out.”
The problem with the play is that there’s no seismic shift when tables are turned, and the believers become doubters and the doubters find faith. In fact, both believers and doubters sort of slide over to the other side. If faith is as fundamental as Wright tells us it is, you’d think he’d have made his characters fight for it.