By Craig Wright; Directed by Dexter Bullard

Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington in GRACE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

BOTTOM LINE: A compelling look at the role of religion through four individuals whose lives collide.

Unwavering faith is put to the test in Craig Wright's new play, Grace. Wright is adept at writing psychological situations with a scosh of humor (his credits include TV's Six Feet Under and Dirty Sexy Money, plus lots of great plays including my favorite, The Unseen). Grace tracks the unraveling of a devout Christian businessman as he relocates to Florida to put all of his faith in a risky business endeavor. A believer, not a knower (he confidently boasts), he puts his trust in religion.

Grace begins at the end: literally, the first thing we see is the final moment in the play when Steve (Paul Rudd) is at the end of his rope. In a gripping instant, Steve comes undone, and his actions are disastrous for his wife Sara (Kate Arrington) and their neighbor Sam (Michael Shannon). For the audience, entering a story at such an active state of tension doesn't mean you just pick up from that point; there is still much exposition to be discovered to figure out what's happening. So, the play does a live-action rewind to uncover the moments just before this one. Then we stop, and pick up from the very beginning.

The rest of the story is linear through time (the rewind trick doesn't go away entirely, though it's infrequent and for effect), but it's impossible to ignore that impending final scene. This forces the audience to comprehend the story in a different way: instead of hanging on to the action (because it's clear what's coming), we get wrapped up in the psychology. To Wright's credit, the characters in Grace are complex and compelling, and even with that prior knowledge it's still quite fun to get to know them. Grace essentially becomes a character study -- what happens to these specimens when they are put under pressure? -- and we become the scientists behind the microscope.

Though the structure of Grace plays a big part in the overall experience, the story itself is rife with religious inquiry. Steve is devout, and feels compelled to discuss religion and share his beliefs, even to those who clearly think differently. Sara is also devout -- she met Steve at a bible study for singles -- but she is more reserved (respectful?) when it comes to publicizing her belief system. Sam is agnostic, and having a hard time holding on to any religion since a car accident killed his fiancé and permanently disfigured his face. As the play progresses, Kate's allegiance begins to sway; her growing friendship with Sam opens her mind about other perspectives. And this friendship serves Sam, who finds his own faith through Sara.

Grace is a drama, but it's certainly not without humor. The play's fourth character is an exterminator, played by the incomparable Ed Asner. This old, lumbering German man is outside the tense trio, not the least bit involved in the personal turmoil between a marriage and a friendship. But his encounters with the three offer insight into his character's relationship with religion, which gets its own arc by the play's end. Through him, we get another perspective, and also much levity, which is appreciated. Wright has peppered his play with funny moments, like a customer service call we see Sam endure after his iPhoto stops working.

I was really moved by all of the performances in Grace. Michael Shannon (who is brilliant in everything he does) gives Sam an unsteady superficiality that exposes the pain underneath the character. When he lets his guard down with Sara, it's a testament to their friendship. Kate Arrington offers a beautifully nuanced performance, allowing us to see Sara for who she is at heart, not just the reverent wife Steve expects her to be. Paul Rudd, doing what he does best, brings an insane amount of charm to his troubled character, embodying a man you'd believe you could trust until you really got to know him.

Grace offers much to consider: the anti-intellectualism that often runs tangent to religion; the reliance on others versus the reliance on a higher being; the flexibility of religious beliefs as life throws obstacles in your way. These topics are opened and thumbed through, but never totally entertained. In a 90-minute show, you can only say so much. But I suspect these quandaries aren't really the point of it all -- as the set (remarkably designed by Beowulf Boritt) rotates in a circle throughout the play, this idea of counting down to the end takes precedence. It isn't so much how we get there as the notion that we're all going to get there eventually.

(Grace plays at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, in a limited engagement through January 6, 2012. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM; Wednesdays at 2PM and 7PM; Thursdays at 7PM; Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $37-$132 and can be purchased at or by calling 212.239.6200. For more show info visit