BY DAVID KENNERLEY |Plays challenging the existence of God have been around for eons. Yet “Grace,” by Craig Wright (“Mistakes Were Made,” “Six Feet Under”), serves up a dizzying spin on the genre. In a fascinating production directed by Dexter Bullard, this inquisition takes the form of a tragicomic crime drama that plays with time and space.
Not that it’s a whodunit, since in the opening moments we witness the carnage, in reverse, as if someone pressed the rewind button, leaving no doubt as to the shooter’s identity. The rest of the story is presented in flashback, detailing the chain of events over two months that led the killer to go berserk.
In keeping with the metaphysical space-time conceit, the set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) of a generic rental condo on the Florida coast is actually two apartments in the same space. We see tenants in both abodes at once, often about to collide with each other. Which of course they inevitably do, both emotionally and physically.
If that’s not enough, the living room is placed on an enormous turntable that revolves so slowly it takes a while to notice. An outer ring, which supports the front door and sliding glass doors to a balcony, revolves in the opposite direction. A ceiling fan spins overhead.
In one apartment are Steve (the ever-charming Paul Rudd, taking a break from his spectacular comic film career) and his pretty wife, Sara (Kate Arrington), who have just moved from Minnesota to open a new chain of gospel-themed hotels. The couple is fervently religious, praising Jesus every chance they get.
A typical prayer: “Keep carrying us forward, Lord, always forward, deeper and deeper into your grace. Amen.” Which is all the more creepy since we know they’re about to take a nasty fall from grace. And that they are literally going around in circles.
Next door is Sam (Michael Shannon), who is recovering from a horrific car wreck that killed his fiancée and left him disfigured — half his face is still covered in a protective mask. A no-nonsense computer whiz for NASA, Sam was not religious before the tragedy and it’s no surprise he doesn’t believe in God now.
Another nonbeliever is Karl (Ed Asner), a crusty old exterminator originally from Germany who stops by each month. Having endured atrocities during the Second World War when he was a boy, how could God possibly exist for him?
Like their rotating apartments, their worlds continue their inexorable spin, where perspectives are altered and beliefs are realigned. Steve and Sara suffer setbacks that cause them to lose faith in Jesus, while Sam and Karl have epiphanies that make them reconsider the possibility of a higher power.
Does the elaborate, high-concept approach to telling and staging the story work? Sadly, the conceits employed are more cryptic than illuminating –– and not seamlessly executed. Plus, the shifts from comic to tragic can be jarring. It’s the commitment of the top-notch performers that helps smooth over the bumps.
Rudd is every bit as appealing onstage as in his films, imbuing Steve with an irresistible mix of devotion and determination. He might be a Jesus freak, but he’s one we don’t mind spending time with. Until, of course, all hell breaks loose.
In his first stint on the boards in nearly a quarter-century, Asner does not disappoint as the garrulous crank who isn’t afraid to bare his soul.
The strongest of the bunch is Shannon, in his Broadway debut, who is alternately witty and chilling as Sam. His wry, one-sided phone conversation with Apple tech support, ramping up in frustration and intensity, had the audience laughing in recognition.
Sara’s transition from bright-eyed believer to cold-hearted traitor seems too abrupt, though it may be the fault of the script rather than Arrington’s portrayal.
So does the inventive yet uneven “Grace” finally reveal if there is a God, if He controls our destiny, and if one religion is superior to another? Yes and no. Perhaps we can look to a solution offered by the wise exterminator, delivered with caustic flair by Asner: “Mind your own business and everything works out.”
GRACE | Cort Theatre | 138 W. 48th St. | Through Jan. 6 | Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $32-$132 | Telecharge.org or 212-239-6200