"Where would Jesus stay?"
That's just one of many questions posed during Craig Wright's Grace, a dark comedy that also asks, "Are we in control of our lives?"
" Grace deals with very big questions," says star Paul Rudd, who returns to Broadway for the first time in six years. "And any time you can spend with the big questions is time well spent."
"Oh!" the 43-year-old actor adds. "People will read that and think I'm like Frank Langella, and not some imbecile who makes fart jokes." Audiences expecting the latter will have to wait for Rudd's upcoming film "This Is 40," his eighth for movie comedy king Judd Apatow ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up"). In Grace, Rudd plays an evangelical Christian trying to fund a chain of gospel hotel resorts (hence the question "Where would Jesus stay?").
Wright knows this world firsthand, having been a Methodist seminarian before bringing his offbeat sensibility to TV and stage. He worked on the acclaimed HBO series "Six Feet Under" and created the cult hit "Dirty Sexy Money" while having plays produced at Playwrights Horizons and Steppenwolf.
According to Grace director Dexter Bullard, Rudd possesses the right alchemy for Wright's textured writing. "He radiates trust, intelligence and humor - yet beneath lies complexity, vulnerability and even a tinge of violence," says Bullard.
Or, as Rudd puts it: "Doing plays allows me to flex different muscles." Cast onscreen primarily as an affable goofball, Rudd's stage work reflects a fierce dramatic intensity. As a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles, the young Rudd surprised his agents by taking time away from far more lucrative television work to study Jacobean drama at the British American Drama Academy at Oxford.
Rudd followed his break-out movie performance in "Clueless" with his first Broadway play, Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo, as well as Twelfth Night for Lincoln Center Theater. And he bracketed the delightfully silly film comedy "Wet Hot American Summer" by playing Jamie Tyrone in a London production of Long Day's Journey Into Night (with Jessica Lange) and premiering Neil LaBute's unsettling The Shape of Things.
"Theatre is the best way for an actor to improve," Rudd says, because of "the sheer repetition" and endurance necessary to withstand that repetition. "But the schedule is a bummer. The one day off is not cool."
Still, he says, "the life of doing a play is special and I treasure it. I miss the community as much as anything else — going to dinner after the show and seeing other people doing shows."
Rudd already has stellar dinner companions. Grace stars Steppenwolf veteran Kate Arrington; seven-time Emmy winner Edward Asner, who is making his first Broadway appearance in nearly a quarter century; and "Boardwalk Empire" regular Michael Shannon, an Oscar nominee for his role as the psychologically disturbed neighbor in "Revolutionary Road." Rudd is particularly happy to be working with Shannon, a longtime friend. It's not just because of the after-show drink, he says: "Michael Shannon is one of the greatest stage actors I've ever seen."
So is Rudd prepared to greet fans at the stage door, a ritual that can be so time-consuming it amounts to a de facto third act?
"I've never had to deal with it," he says. His last Broadway outing was Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, starring Julia Roberts. "When she came out the stage door, traffic patterns changed. Bradley Cooper and I were off the hook. We were just 'the guys in the Julia Roberts play.'"
Having lived in New York for 17 years, Rudd is used to walking the streets unrecognized. "People in New York just want to get where they're going," he says. "They might be like, 'Oh look, there's Brad Pitt, but we've got an 8 PM dinner reservation.'"
That said, Rudd admits, "I can see them sticking around for Ed Asner."
Once he's inside the theatre, however, Rudd feels certain of the connection with the audience. "Actors can tell by degrees what the audience is like," he says, "even a quiet house. If there's a lot of coughers, it doesn't mean they're not listening. You feel the energy. So there's a charge in hearing the announcement that curtain goes up in half an hour. It's a thrill."
With Rudd returning to the theatre a bigger star than he's ever been and showing sides of his range he's never shown before, the thrill is mutual.
(This feature appears in the September 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)