nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 9, 2008
Mick Gordon and A.C. Grayling's Grace often feels more like a treatise than a story—a long, hotly contested argument between science and God, between faith in the divine and faith only in pure reason, between what you know and what you can prove. It's got players from all sides—Grace, a biology professor and passionate "naturalist" (she refuses to use the word "atheist" because the term presupposes a "theism" to be in opposition to, and she won't even grant the other side that much legitimacy); her husband, Tony, a retired teacher (of, I think, English literature), non-practicing Jew, and sweet-tempered pragmatist; their son, Tom, a former defense attorney who's now entering Episcopalian seminary and struggling with the meaning and purpose of his religious faith; and Tom's girlfriend, Ruth, a fiery lawyer who can parse "reasonable doubt" down to the slightest atom. There's a lot of self-conscious speech-making—Tom practices a sermon, Grace gives lectures, Ruth and Tom work out courtroom closing speeches, Tony fits a monologue about Hinduism into a dinner-table conversation with his son. The plot is somewhat creakily structured as flashbacks while Grace participates in a neurology experiment purporting to create experiences of religious epiphany through electrical stimulation to the brain.
And yet the piece works, emotionally, better than it has any right to, because it's so well acted—not just by the predictably blistering Lynn Redgrave as Grace but by all four central characters (the fifth is simply a voice-over), directed by Joseph Hardy—that most of my principled dramaturgical objections to the script got swept away. Redgrave, as Grace, is everything you might have expected—withering in her sarcasm, fervidly rigid in her beliefs in logic and reason as her only gods, unyielding to the point of cruelty when contradicted, even by her beloved son. What saves her from being a monster is a keen self-knowledge; she knows that to compromise her principles, even for a moment, is to betray the foundation of the self she's fought to create, and so she can't budge—even when standing on those principles becomes destructive to her relationships with everyone around her. She's fierce, she prides herself on being the coolest professor on campus, and being married to the mild-mannered Tony has allowed her to remain the unchallenged center of attention for her entire life.
I found Philip Goodwin, as Tony, somewhat affected at first, but I gradually grew to see his slightly daffy imperturbability as a strategy for holding his own against Grace. Goodwin infuses Tony with an absolutely unconditional love for both his fierce wife and his spiritually embattled son that grounds his performance, and holds the family unit together, even forging a bridge to Ruth and their granddaughter after Ruth and Grace have a cataclysmic falling-out.
And the two younger actors, Oscar Isaac as Tom, and K.K. Moggie as Ruth, are both talents to watch. The position Tom's defending throughout most of the play is a lot less grandstand-able than Grace's: where she stands up for pure reason to protect against zealotry and fanaticism, Tom has come to believe that religion cannot be slain, and the best place for a person with doubts and a moral compass is inside that system, trying to give the voice of reason a home in the precincts of faith. It's a subtle, un-showy, incredibly precise philosophical argument, and yet Isaac so passionately and intelligently holds his ground against Redgrave that Tom almost wins, though it seems clear—not least from a melodramatic plot twist I won't reveal—that the playwrights take the opposite side of the argument. Temperamentally I'm more inclined to take Grace's perspective,too, but I found myself enormously sympathetic to Isaac's own passionate doubt. He knows what he doesn't know, and struggles with that every day.
Ruth is the least carefully written role—she's the third angle of Tom and Grace's triangle, the ally they both seek to persuade, which means she has more reacting than acting to do, with the exception of one monologue late in the play that doesn't come soon enough to give the necessary insight into her character. But the way Moggie circles around the borders of the family, both wanting in and not being quite able to trust the bonds connecting her to Tom or his parents, has a precision and a yearning that's stronger than what's written for her character.
There's a slightly chilly formalism to the production design—a few simple pieces of furniture on Tobin Ost's set, mostly neutral colors with an occasional single accent color in Alejo Vietti's costumes—that highlights the stark conflicts drawn in the play's world views. Though elegant, the production, like the script, seems to lean more toward schematic than story. But the performances go a long way toward adding color and emotion to both.