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Thursday, October 25, 2012

On Broadway: Grace

Some plays you should see because the story makes you think about something in a different way, others you should see for the performances of the actors. Grace, starring Paul Rudd (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Role Models), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, TV's Boardwalk Empire), Kate Arrington and TV legend Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant) falls into the latter category.

Rudd and Arrington play Steve and Sarah, a couple from Minnesota who move to Florida to start a chain of gospel-themed hotels. They are true believers, preaching their religion to anyone who listen (and even those who won't). Sam, their neighbor in the apartment next door played by Shannon, is a recluse. He was in a car accident that killed his fiancee and left him disfigured.  Asner plays Karl, an exterminator, the only survivor in his family of the Nazi occupation.

Karl's story is revealed as Steve asks him questions about faith and God. Karl doesn't have faith or believe in God because he has seen horrible things, the worst of humanity. How could there be a God who would allow those things to happen? Asner hits all of the right notes here, playing humor and pathos in equal measure.

Shannon is simply amazing as Sam. If you have seen his performance in Boardwalk Empire,  there are similarities between Sam and the character he plays in Boardwalk. Nobody plays quiet desperation and loneliness like Shannon; he is simply brilliant here.

 Sara is lonely, waiting at home while Steve works to line up financing for their venture. She makes numerous attempts to befriend Sam, to draw him out of his shell, to bring some measure of human interaction to his life as well as to her own. Arrington and Shannon play this budding relationship with such delicacy and sweetness, I was not shocked to discover they are married off-stage.

Steve's relationship with his wife is more troubling. Steve is somewhat of a bully towards his wife, and the flashes of anger we see in him when things do not go his way match his nearly manic display of religious fervor as he tries to logically explain why Karl and Sam should have faith. Rudd plays this outwardly cheerful character who hides his rages quite well.

The play starts at the tragic end, so the audience sees that Steve kills everyone, and then we go back to the beginning of this unraveling. I'm not sure how I feel about this conceit or why the playwright began the play this way. Maybe it was to grab the audience right away and to have them look for signs that led up to this violent end, but I wondered if it would have been more powerful to not have known it was coming.

This is a show to see for the performances, and if you can get a discount ticket. I saw the cast after the matinee, and they all graciously signed and posed for photos, no one staying longer than 82-year-old Asner, who was a fan favorite. (He also told me this play was exhausting him.)

Ed Asner

Kate Arrington

Michael Shannon

Paul Rudd

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