PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Grace Looks for God in a Mondo Condo
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Oct. 4 Broadway opening of Craig Wright's play Grace.
Sam and Sara and Steve swirl in and out and around a couple of identical, furnished rental condos on the Florida shore in Grace, but what you actually see on the stage of the Cort is one room subliminally serving the needs of all — in much the same way, earlier this week Off-Broadway, The Girl Upstairs and The Boy Below obliviously share the same pad in Marry Me a Little.
In this quirky, kinky world that playwright Craig Wright started spinning Oct. 4 at the Cort, walls hardly separate the believers, the agnostic and the atheist huddling under one roof. (The scenic design, literally spinning throughout the running time, is by the visionary Beowulf Boritt, who also designed breathtakingly tricky sets for the concurrent Chaplin on Broadway and If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet Off-Broadway.)
Paul Rudd, looking edgily angelic like somebody who has stayed too long in Sunday School class, and Kate Arrington, the wife he found in Bible Study class, are the faction who fiercely believe — he much more than she — a Christian couple newly arrived from Minnesota to start up a series of gospel motels on the Florida coast. All their faith is pinned on the check-is-in-the-mail promise, poor babies. Their old-time religion seeping through the thin stucco walls is not what their reclusive next-door-neighbor, Sam (Michael Shannon), needs. An agnostic NASA scientist, he is on the mend from a grinding car crash, which cost him a fiancée and a good half of his face.
Another frayed-faith fella heard from: the Teutonic exterminator who makes house calls, Karl (Ed Asner), spilling over with Holocaust stories that reinforce his atheism.
The no-good-can-come-of-this combustible mix begins the show with a bang bang bang — and, from there, the characters moonwalk their way back into the land of the living so we can see the circumstances that brought them to this violent precipice.
But from the cozy Copacabana perch that followed this volatile 100-minute drama, everything was beautiful. Playwright Wright wouldn't, or didn't, know, since he was a no-show (as he was at the press meet 'n' greet last month). Great! Another press-shy playwright, a la Mamet, who prefers to let his plays do the talking for him.
Dexter Bullard had the look of a Chicago director who had just tagged the Broadway base for his debut: Relieved! "I wasn't as nervous as I thought I would be," he was surprised to report, "but it is overwhelming and overpowering, for sure.
"Listen, I'm a small-town boy — Carlisle, PA — and the part of me that's a Chicago theatre director is still here. Chicago and New York are not that far apart in terms of theatre. Our theatre requires the same thing that New York theatre does — the same thing, which is just to put people into situations where they can grow. Maybe it's a little easier to move along there. It's a slightly smaller theatre family than New York but no less intense a theatre family — and we grow people like Tracy Letts and Amy Morton and David Cromer and Pam MacKinnon. Now, we're about to see Kimberly Senior open a Lincoln Center show [Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced]."
Bullard has busied himself Off-Broadway before directing Shannon in a couple of Wright works (the hysterically hilarious Mistakes Were Made and the poignant Lady), and he earned a Lortel Award directing him in Letts' pyrotechnical Bug.
"I'm Chicago-based, but I'll be coming back and forth," he promised. "I teach at the theatre school at DePaul University — I'm head of the graduate acting program — and that gives me the luxury of not having to worry about where my next gig is coming from. I'm quite selective. It sounds strange, but I love being an artist. Sometimes, when you work too much to be commercial, you loose the sense of the artistry. That's why I'm pleased about Grace. I got to put my artistic statement on it."
Asner, the only person to win Emmys for comedy and drama in the same role (Lou Grant) and indeed the male performer with the most Emmys (7), seemed visibly pleased to be back on the boards again, but he covered it up with grumpy asides.
"It feels great," he conceded. "It restores my honor after 23 years of debacle."
"Debacle" is All-Purpose Asner for the film and TV he has done since he played Harry Brock to Madeline Kahn's Billie Dawn in 1989's Born Yesterday. Now he finds himself in the Cort where Broadway's last Harry Brock, Jim Belushi, hung out.
No, he said, the German accent "did not come natural. I've done it before, and I tried to make it even better this time. I like this character. He has a wonderful arc. He's a very interesting, pleasing person. I'd love to have him to lunch sometime."
Still a mover and shaker (slow and steady division), Asner turns 83 next month (Nov. 15) and said he welcomed the challenges of eight performances a week. His secret, delivered with a wise wink: "Theatre, and this play, give me strength."
Amiable, accessible and ever-ready with the wisecracks, Rudd averted that the fact that his middle name is Steve helped him play this over-the-top do-gooder — and, no doubt, a field trip to The Book of Mormon helped fill in some character blanks. "It's a different kind of character for me, one that I like playing," he admitted. "I guess the closest I've come to this kind of guy before was something I did in a Neil LaBute play [Bashed, in which his clean-cut sheen concealed a vicious, remorseless gay-basher], but there are aspects of Steve's personality that are very different from me. I like that, too. I like trying to make those parts of the character seem real.
"Doing a play is a challenge like no other. It's different than working in film, and it takes a level of concentration and a level of relaxation that is specific unto itself. And you get great plays. There are great playwrights who really take the time to nail it."
A point could be made that the 43-year-old Rudd saves his best stuff for theatre and makes his funny faces for films. He has one picture in theatres now ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower"), a blockbuster under the Christmas tree ticking ("This Is 40") and no less than seven flicks in stages of post-production. Then, "Anchorman 2."
"I haven't done a play in six years. I kinda, in the last couple of years, wanted to do one, but I didn't want to just do a play for the sake of doing a play. When I read Grace, it seemed very complex and tricky — and also it was something that was new and fresh. Reading the way it did on the page — two simultaneous actions happening on top of each other and things going backward — I can't think of another play like that.
"Also, I thought it was provocative in a way that I haven't seen in a lot of Broadway productions — and I wanted to be a part of that and try that, going into it thinking, 'Some people might like this, and I imagine there'll be a lot of people who don't.'"
The play's most haunting, and haunted, character is the shattered scientist who is pulled back into life by his "Jesus freak" neighbors — in particular, by the empathetic Sara. "I like the journey he goes on," Shannon admitted. "He starts out empty, dead to the world, dead to himself. He doesn't even know why he's alive, and, throughout the course of the play, he has this strange relationship with Sara, where he gets a second chance. Despite the terrible things that have happened, he feels redeemed."
By the time Shannon reached the press line, his voice — which is used to the max in the play — was completely shot, and he was speaking sparingly, holding his throat in pain. Yes, he did shave his hairline back a bit "so I could put the makeup on," he explained. "The makeup is very difficult to put on. It takes about 45 minutes."
After all the triumphs that he has had Off-Broadway (Uncle Vanya, Our Town, Killer Joe), did Broadway feel discernibly different for him? "I love being on Broadway," he rasped. "It's awesome. I've always wanted to be on Broadway, and now I'm here."
That was resoundingly doubled by his life partner, Arrington, who debuts with some distinction in the play's sole female slot. "It really means something to make our debuts at the same time," she admitted. "It has been a long, hard road, but, if you're a couple who gets to share things together like this, it's really wonderful."
Both hail from Chicago theatre — and Steppenwolf Theatre, in particular — and they've acted together before "but on a much smaller scale. We've done a lot of workshops, some very tiny things in films — but we've never done anything like this together."
Arrington was last seen on stage as one of the trollops frequenting Harry Hope's Saloon in Goodman's acclaimed revival of The Iceman Cometh starring Nathan Lane. Alas, she said, the iceman won't cometh to New York. "It's too expensive, and it's a real loss, I have to say. That was an absolutely amazing experience, the best ensemble for a cast that size and the fastest five hours you could ask for on stage."
The critic of Shannon household, four-year-old Sylvia Shannon, was fast asleep by the curtain call. "She saw the tech," Arrington was delighted to announce, "and did say, 'I'm not too fond of the part where Mommy and Daddy get shot.' That was her least favorite part. Since she was 18 months old, she's seen everything we've done."
First-nighters included Andrea Martin, Shubert kingpin Phil Smith, eminently Broadway-bound Emily Bergl (still singing from the night before the praise of Andrea Marcovicci at The Café Carlyle), Joey Slotnick, Mad Man John Slattery and wife Talia Balsam, rocker Steven Van Zandt and wife Maureen, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo Tony nominee Arian Moayed (preparing to write and direct his first movie, "This Island Made Me," in Chicago), Carla Gugino fresh off The Road to Mecca, Paula Wagner (debuting as a Broadway producer with this and bracing for her next, The Heiress, Nov. 1 at the Walter Kerr), Natalie Zea of "Dirty Sexy Money," Kali Hawk from "New Girl," Jon Bernthal (shuffling from "The Walking Dead" to the Lucille Lortel stage this spring for MCC Theater in John Pollono's Small Engine Repair, directed by Jo Bonney and co-starring Christopher Fitzgerald and Pollono), Bobby Cannavale ("12 days before Glengarry Glen Ross gets before an audience"), Michael Chernus, songsmiths of the incoming Hands on a Hard Body Amanda Green and Tom Kitt, John Scherer (due at the Pittsburgh Public for 1776), Dick Scanlan (trying to get his revised Molly Brown sailing), Thomas McCarthy, director David Cromer (with no idea at all if his cheered Chicago revival of Sweet Bird of Youth starring Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock will take wing to New York on the strength of those reviews), Kevin McCollum, director Kenny Leon (beating drums for his African-American "Steel Magnolias," airing Oct. 7 on Lifetime at 9 PM), P.J. Byrne (getting the night off from filming "The Wolf of Wall Street" from Martin Scorsese), On a Clear Day's David Turner, producers Kristin Caskey and Debbi Bisno, Allegra Cohen and one of The Performers arriving Nov. 14 at the Longacre, Henry Winkler.
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