It takes some doing to make Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon and Ed Asner look bad, but "Grace," a mess of a play at Broadway's Cort Theatre, does.
It's really too bad because Rudd and Asner are justifiable draws, but even their charms cannot compensate for this play. The blame is shared between playwright Craig Wright ("Lost," "Six Feet Under") and director Dexter Bullard.
The play, barely 100 minutes and wisely without an intermission, unfolds on one set, a living room in Florida. That living room is the same for two apartments, one shared by Steve and Sara (Rudd and Kate Arrington) and the other belonging to Sam (Shannon, "Boardwalk Empire").
Steve and Sara are married and moved from Minnesota to Florida. He's a proselytizing Christian who sees himself as a wheeler and dealer. He wants to open a chain of "gospel hotels."
It's clear from the very beginning, though, that he has been bamboozled, and his financial backer in Zurich is not real.
Sara desperately wants a baby. She seems like a nice enough person but the character is not developed much beyond her yearning to be a mom.
Sam, a NASA scientist, lives with the guilt and grief over his late fiancee. He didn't want to go to Atlanta to celebrate her mother's birthday, so he made her drive, despite her being afraid of the highway. The hideous accident they suffered en route left her dead and him with profound scars on his face -- covered by a plastic mask -- and psyche.
Asner plays Karl, the wise exterminator. He has the most poignant stories, which he delivers in an accent that we're told is German. Steve asks the two men if they went to church as children. Karl, who also has the best lines, tells him that there is no Jesus, there is no God and if he minds his own business, it will all work out.
Karl tells of being a boy in Nazi Germany, how his father hid Jews and how, after his house was bombed and the Nazis stormed his house, he gave up a Jewish girl hiding in a cauldron, was forced to watch as the Nazis raped her and then they forced him to do the same.
And yes, these were the best lines in the play, and the most interesting stories.
For all of his devout ways, Steve is pretty miserable, while Sara is bored out of her mind and Sam is bitter. Karl, wisely, only appears in the beginning and the end.
It would be understandable, though, for people to get confused by the timeline here because the play bounces back and forth. It opens with the ending, which it repeats at the traditional end of the play. Other scenes also repeat, and they do not improve the second time around. There is an incredibly annoying sound effect in between scenes, when a dull, throbbing hum is played, which sounds like a stuck machine.
That's not to say the actors are anything less than sincere. In his big moments, Rudd is so caught up in his character - who has lost his money, his reputation, his wife and his health - that the veins on his neck are visibly throbbing.
Asner, who in a recent interview with me unrelated to this play was still smarting over bad Broadway reviews from 25 years ago, seems happy to be on the stage. As a diehard Asner fan, I so wish it were in something better.
The play's best performance belongs to Shannon.
But ultimately it does not matter. There is just not that much to see, and unless you absolutely must see an itchy Rudd in his boxers or Shannon with really good makeup scars, this is one Broadway show easily skipped.
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus