A fine cast, led by Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon, do their best in Craig Wright’s histrionic and overly symbolic play about faith and redemption.

Kate Arrington, Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon in <i>Grace</i>
Kate Arrington, Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon in Grace
(© Joan Marcus)

Craig Wright obviously has a potent thing against organized religion of any variety, but with Grace, now making its Broadway bow at the Cort Theatre under Dexter Bullard’s committed direction, he hasn’t found the altogether proper way to let off steam. Instead, he’s written (unintentionally) a histrionic and symbol-clanging work about misguided belief and possible redemption.

The play, most of which is framed as flashback to an explosive ending, focuses on Steve (Paul Rudd) and Sara (Kate Arrington), who met and fell for each other in a born-again prayer group and who have recently moved from Minnesota to Florida so he can realize his dream of opening a string of “Gospel hotels.”

When Steve ends up having cash-flow problems, he puts the investment moves on next-door neighbor Sam (Michael Shannon), who’s only somewhat recovering — definitely not spiritually — from a highway accident in which his girlfriend was killed and much of his face was scraped away. Soon, the threesome has become increasingly entangled in each other’s lives (as made doubly clear by Beowulf Borritt’s intermingled set of their adjacent apartments).

Also on hand from time to time — especially to second Sam’s resentment of Steve’s mindless faith — is aging German émigré Karl (Ed Asner), whose denial of any god watching over humanity was established during the Holocaust when he betrayed a young Jewish girl hidden in his parent’s home.

Unquestionably, Wright overwhelmingly stacks his cards throughout the action. Steve is a sincere but callow “Jesus freak”—as Karl insists on calling him — who can even find God’s grace in Karl’s horror story, and who proselytizes naively and blindly whenever he sees the opportunity. At the same time, Sam and Karl present far more convincing cases for a godless cosmos.

Sure enough, Sara begins to see their side, and loses patience with (and romantic interest) in Steve – leading to a volatile finish the audience has literally seen coming, but which registers as more than a bit excessive. It is clearly intended, though, to afford a sensational ending to Wright’s indictment of conventional theology.

Compounding the play’s pretentiousness are the irritating ironies embedded in it. For instance, does Karl (who lived through the Nazis) really need to be an exterminator? And if Sam’s skin condition isn’t enough, did it have to be followed by Steve developing one of his own — a constantly worsening itching (symbolic, of course) called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

Nonetheless, the convincing Rudd, the sensitive Arrington, the tough Shannon and the forthright, yet adorable Asner deserve grace for their work in Grace.

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Closed: January 6, 2013