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By Eric Grode
Jesus and his followers have enjoyed a fair amount of time on Broadway of late. Still, the doorbell-ringing Book of Mormon protagonists notwithstanding, any actual proselytizing has been confined to the big sermons and song-and-dance numbers in Sister Act and Leap of Faith.
Enter Steve and Sara in Craig Wright's new drama Grace, now in previews at the Cort Theatre. A potent but volatile combination of faith, ambition and desperation has spurred this young couple (played by Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington) to flee Minnesota for a nondescript Florida hotel room. There they hope to build a Bible-themed chain of hotels, complete with baptismal pool and high-speed Internet.
They only cross paths with two other characters in Grace, a curmudgeonly exterminator (Ed Asner) and a physically as well as psychologically disfigured scientist (Michael Shannon). But in each case, Steve and Sara barrage them with rigorous questions about faith that feel more like cross-examinations and go well beyond the two men's comfort zones.
The task of making these dialogues both plausible and palatable to a New York audience falls to the director, Dexter Bullard, a frequent collaborator with Wright. "The piece reminds us that every fundamentalist Christian is a completely different person," Bullard says. "If you've met one fundamentalist Christian, you've met one fundamentalist Christian."
Bullard believes Wright, a former Methodist seminarian and pastoral intern, is a logical person to give accurate and sympathetic voice to the young couple. "He knows these people," says the director, who himself is the great-grandson of Mennonites. "And he's of them from a past life, in a way. But they're just as fallible in his eyes.
"Here's someone who was deeply religious at one point in his life, and then he wasn't," Bullard says of Wright. "And so what happened? How do we make sense of that? These big things that religion covers are also the things that theatre covers."
Bullard, Wright and Shannon all appear to be true believers in one another. The three are all seasoned veterans of Chicago theatre, and Bullard remembers casting Shannon in a Howard Korder play when the actor was only 16 years old.
In the intervening two decades, the three have joined forces on numerous projects, including Wright's last two plays to reach New York: Lady, a somber drama about a group of stoners hunting in the woods, and Mistakes Were Made, a comedic tour de force in which Shannon played a third-rate producer desperate to put together a misbegotten Broadway potboiler.
By this stage of their careers, "there is a definite shorthand," says Bullard, 46. "I understand what Craig's trying to say, and Craig understands the kind of life I can bring to a production. And Michael just has an incredible knack for Craig's voice. There's a mutual attraction."
Grace is in some ways flashier than Lady and Mistakes Were Made; the set manages to depict two identical hotel rooms simultaneously, for one thing, and the narrative has a tendency to double back on itself. Bullard says he uses the play's visual aspects to convey both of these things: "Our set has a very subtle and beautiful kinetic sense of time going backward and forward."
But the play also lingers over the extremely natural situations that bedevil Steve and Sara along with their two semi-unwilling acquaintances. "They're people in ordinary places talking about ordinary things, but Craig can always find the extraordinary parts of these stories," Bullard says. "His pieces often involve a heightened sense of reality, but in the gentlest of ways."
Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program