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."
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