Saturday, October 20, 2012

Theater Review: Grace

Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington, Paul Rudd and Ed Asner. Photo: (c) Joan Marcus

Not Much New Here. Just Some More Stereotypical Christians Who Don't Get it
By Lauren Yarger
Before I went to see Craig Wright's play, Grace, on Broadway, I commented that I had seen few depictions of Christian characters on stage who were grounded in faith while still being likable. More often, we are portrayed as being:
1) fanatic/ zealots
2) weakminded/ stupid/brainwashed
3) uptight/repressed homosexuals
4) Republicans (who also can be any or all of the rest of these too)
5) Racist/sexist
6) gunloving
7) Self righteous
8)glasses hypocritical

Grace covers 1, 2, 5, 6, 7 and 8. But before you get upset, understand that the point of the play is to dismiss Christianity -- or any organized religion or defined God for that matter -- as the source of human ability to love or forgive. Having caring Christians who act like Jesus wouldn't bring about that result, so the stereotype is needed.

The Christians in question here are Steve (Paul Rudd of the movie "Knocked Up" and TV's “Friends”) and Sara (Kate Arrington). They have just moved to Florida from Minnesota where they were active in their evangelical church and ran a hotel renovation company. They are there to start a chain of "gospel-themed hotels" called Crossroads Inns: "Every one with a sanctuary. Baptismal pool. Jungle gym . . . . High speed Internet. Videoconferencing. Promise Keepers strength training. Full-on Gospel hotels. 'Where Would Jesus stay?'" (There's the zealot -- and the weakminded part -- The Holy Land Experience right there in Florida had its share of trouble making a go of it and Christian camps across the nation can't make ends meet. Whatever would make him think this was a viable idea?)

Oh, that's right, God ordained it, he says.

Steve met an investor from Zurich through a Promise Keepers contact (that must be God's will!) who put up $10,000 to locate a property, but for some reason, the mysterious Mr. Himmelman didn't follow through on sending the $9 million needed to complete the purchase from the bank and Steve, whose name is on the LLC, was forced to use his own money from the sale of their home in Minnesota. (there's the stupid part). Sara, being a woman who blasts Christian music on the radio and lifts her arms when praying is more interested in when they can have a baby.

Meanwhile, Steve takes time from his worries to aggressively share his faith with Karl (a delightful Ed Asner), an exterminator who has dropped in to treat their apartment even though he repeatedly makes it clear that he isn't interested in hearing what the "Jesus freaks" have to say (there's the fanatic part). In Nazi Germany, Karl's father, a man of faith, insisted that they help hide Jews. He and his family endured unspeakable horrors and Karl was forced to rape his young Jewish friend, Rachel.

"Ever since then, I know two things for sure," Karl says. "I know there’s no God. There’s no one watching the world, or keeping anything from happening. And, worse, I know my father is a fool. He is someone who makes himself foolish living for a lie – like you."

Meanwhile, the couple learns details about their mysterious NASA scientist neighbor, Sam (Michael Shannon  "Revolutionary Road", “Boardwalk Empire”), whose scarred face is hidden by a mask following a car accident in which his fiancee died. Sara's first attempts to be neighborly are met with hostility, but her persistence wins out and she and Sam become friends. He is able to open up to her about his fiancee and his guilt over the accident. Their relationship gives Steve an opportunity to ask Sam to invest in the hotel scheme  -- and to share his faith.

Sam also isn't interested in "people who suck money and life out of other people in the name of some idea about God that isn’t true."

Steve works himself up into such a lather telling Sam what he needs and why he really is just angry at God that Sam takes back his investment (there's the self righteous part).

As Sara distances herself from an increasingly irritable Steve, who has developed an unexplained itch, she is able to lead Sam to a prayer of faith. Steve now decides God wants them to return to Minnesota (here's the hypocritical part) and even uses scriptures demanding that a wife submit to her husband's will (there's the sexist part) to force her to move back with him. It's too late, though. She and Sam have fallen in love and tragedy ensues (I won't list a spoiler here, but let's just say this is where the gun-loving part comes in).

Meanwhile, Karl discovers the "true" definition of faith and grace when he meets up again with Rachel.

I tried to extend some grace to where this story might take us -- Wright (Mistakes Were Made, Recent Tragic Events, “Six Feet Under”) has some religious ties in his background -- but overall, there just wasn't enough of a new take on the old "Christianity/God doesn't work" theme to keep me interested. In addition, the action takes place on one set for both apartments and Director Dexter Bullard wasn't able to get across why this was so. The explanation for both existences occurring simultaneously in the same space comes, perhaps best, from this conversation:

Sam: Space is a tremendous distance that you have to get information across in time. That’s the problem with space.
Steve: Time.
Sam: Yes. How can we know what we need to know…in time – when what we need to know has to come from so far away.
Steve: How can you?
Sam: You can’t. Ultimately. Not completely. You can’t.


Set designer Beowolf Boritt creates a backdrop that shows celestial clouds and stars in space to try to blend the science/faith ideas, but the staging doesn't work. An actor walks in a door frame from what is supposed to be one apartment, then another actor exits the other apartment through the same door. Audience members audibly asked each other what was happening and even gasped when someone came through what they thought was the wrong door at an inappropriate time. In addition, some sequences are done in a "rewind-the-action" fashion without making clear why we are seeing the events this way.

Also, it's not clear how much time has passed. The opening scene telegraphs the ending so not much comes as a surprise in between. At times, crickets are chirping in a significant way (Darron L. West, sound design) but what it meant was lost on me, I must admit.

The Christian stereotypes bothered me after a while too, because while I understand the need for them to be able to tell this story, they just don't stand up. At one point Steve shares about the moment when he became a Christian by feeling something while gazing at stars. Let's just say that it doesn't sound like any "testimony" I have ever heard that wouldn't have come under scrutiny at their evangelical church back there in Minnesota. He likely wouldn't be able to share the specifics of the gospel without realizing that his own "conversion" seems to be lacking the necessary ingredients for salvation. Even if he were able to, wouldn't his wife notice the problem?

Are there Christian women who believe it is God's will for them to blindly obey their husbands? You bet, but they are unlikely to spend a lot of time day after day alone next door in the apartment of a man not their husband. When Sam points out their growing attraction and tells her not to come any more because he can't control where it might lead, Sara refuses to stop seeing him saying that their being together can't be bad because it feels so right. Then they become sexually involved. None of this sounds like any of the Ephesians 5-spewing women I know.

The Christian pop song "He Reigns" is played at the beginning and end of this play -- I could have suggested some better mindless praise songs to fit the mood. But I'll extend some grace. Grace received three LA Drama Critics Circle Awards including Best Play when it was presented at the Pasadena Playhouse. This production, with an updated script, marks its New York Premiere and Broadway debuts for Wright, Bullard and Shannon.

Here's hoping that we soon can enjoy another wonderful Christian character on stage like Abebe in A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick by Kia Corthron. We're not all weakminded, uptight, sexist, racist fanatics who love guns, vote Republican and force our religion down people's throats while repressing our homosexual desires, after all.
 
Grace plays a limited engagement at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th St., NYC through Jan. 6, 2012.
Tickets: (212) 239-6200.

Christians might also like to know:
--Language
--God's name taken in vain
--Adultery
--Suicide

Other information:
A talkback event on Oct. 24 will feature Dr. Michael Brown of the Marble Collegiate Church NYC (home of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking"), who consulted on Grace during the rehearsal process, and Ron William Walden, the Assistant Director of the MPS Program for Development and Academic Assessment at the NY Theological Seminary, will discuss the issues of faith and religion that are explored in the play directly following the evening performance.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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