Grace on Broadway: Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon in Motel Hell

The actors stand out in Craig Wright’s play about a crisis of faith

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The O + M Company, Joan Marcus / AP Photo

Paul Rudd, left, and Kate Arrington during a performance of "Grace," at the Cort Theatre in New York City.

What impressed me most about Grace — Craig Wright’s new Broadway play about a Christian evangelical couple facing a crisis of faith in Florida — is how gloriously, unabashedly theatrical it is. It opens with a shocking act of violence that unfolds in reverse time, like a video recording played backward — a scene repeated at the end in normal, forward-moving time. Under Dexter Bullard’s edgy direction, the play continues to toy with time and space: another scene suddenly stops and rewinds itself; two apartments are conflated into one set, so that characters cross each other’s paths even though they are in separate rooms. For a play about religious faith, featuring a character who’s hunting for life in outer space, all this may be thematically apt. But what it conveys most immediately for an audience is that they’re watching a play. Don’t hold your breath for the movie version.

What got Grace to Broadway, however, was surely its cast. Paul Rudd brings the same jaded-Boy-Scout ingenuousness from his many Judd Apatow comedies to the central role of a naive evangelical who has moved to Florida with his wife to start a chain of gospel-themed motels. Michael Shannon — one of our best stage actors, but better known for films like Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter — has the showier supporting role, as the couple’s brooding next-door neighbor, a NASA scientist recovering from a car accident that killed his fiancée, scarred his face and blasted away his faith in anything. Add to them one old pro, Ed Asner, as a German exterminator with his own disturbing back-story, and one relative newcomer, Kate Arrington, as Rudd’s wife, and you have a near-perfect Broadway ensemble, with some star power too.

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And the play? I found it bold and compelling, though a little less than meets the eye. As an exploration of religious faith in a fallen world, it bites off more than it can properly chew in the hour and a half that its four characters are on stage. Still, it demonstrates so much empathy for a certain kind of American spiritual malaise, and so much theatrical panache, that I was well outside the theater before I could start picking it apart.

Rudd’s character is a classic religious naif, lightly satirized but without condescension. His faith is sincere, his motives pure, and even his business plan not entirely ridiculous. It’s the narcissism of his zealotry that causes him to look foolish — blinding him both to his wife’s needs and to the obvious con game, involving a phantom Swiss investor, that he has been sucked into. Yet even the smarmy soft-sell of his evangelical pitches — a casual question about churchgoing, followed by a disclaimer, “I’m just curious about people’s beliefs” — is too sweetly transparent to be offensive.

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Grace is a dark comedy that is draped in dread, haunted by tragedy. Scenes end abruptly with a flickering of lights and the hiss of an electric short circuit. Rudd develops a maddening, inexplicable itch that seems like a plague visited upon him by a spiteful, or inattentive, God. Yet the most wrenching scenes are those in which the characters are plunged into a more earthly form of hell — on the telephone. When we first encounter Shannon, he is struggling to hold in the rage while trying to get tech support on the phone to salvage the digital photos that have disappeared from his MacBook Pro. (Shannon spent an entire play in similar telephone panic, as a desperate movie producer in Wright’s excellent 2010 satire Mistakes Were Made.) Later on, as his world is coming unraveled, Rudd has a parallel telephone meltdown, as he pleads with an insurance company that has apparently turned down his claim for the mysterious skin ailment.

“I’m not asking to get better. I just want to be covered!” Rudd cries pathetically, at the end of his fraying rope. In a world with a heedless God, who allows bad things to happen to good people, it’s a strategy, if not a solution. Don’t be foolish enough to expect salvation; all you can hope for is a little cover.

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