The theater, no matter how secularized it gets, is a mystical place; for anything great to happen there, some force that we don’t seem to find in our natural selves has to take us over. Eleonora Duse, probably the greatest actress of her era, called this seizure of inspiration “la grazia“—grace—and was merciless with herself about performances in which it didn’t descend. The absence of that extra magical something doesn’t necessarily mean the work’s bad; just that, in some inexplicable way, it’s unforgivable.
The descent of grace is hoped for onstage, sometimes desperately, in two new plays, but never really arrives. Instead it occurs, with unexpected dazzle, through the medium of the lead actress in a third play far inferior to the first two. Tricky quality, grace.
Tightened and retouched since its Off-Broadway run last summer, Geoffrey Nauffts’s Next Fall (Helen Hayes Theatre) presents a seemingly simple story that turns out to be crisscrossed with conflicting hidden agendas. The four-year relationship of Adam (Patrick Breen) and Luke (Patrick Heusinger), seen in flashback glimpses, runs up against a blank wall when Luke is concussed in a traffic accident and Adam, stressed out in the ICU waiting room, has to confront his lover’s parents, divorced but both solidly born-again: tender, scatterbrained Arlene (Connie Ray) and ultra-right, ultra-self-righteous Butch (Cotter Smith). The expected Christian-unbeliever fight over pulling the plug on comatose Luke never exactly happens, and we only get a bare flicker of Adam’s struggle for the right to have time alone with his dying love (evoking so many similar struggles from the worst part of the pre-“cocktail” AIDS era).
These issues aren’t played out fully onstage because guilt-ridden Luke, who melts into quivering jelly at the mere thought of his father’s imminent arrival at the boys’ Manhattan apartment, has not only kept his sex life a secret from his parents but hasn’t fully accepted it himself. A youthful wannabe actor who’s adjusted to New York liberal ways easily enough in other respects (he’s even pro-choice), he prays for forgiveness nightly after sex, and pressures Adam to find God so that they can ultimately wind up in heaven together.
One can imagine that four years of this would get awfully trying, which may explain why Adam, a failed writer turning 40, working in his best gal-pal’s candle shop to make ends meet, comes off as the least likeable character in Next Fall, consistently hard-hearted and ungiving, ready with a sarcastic quip for even the most painful occasion. The merger of his extreme position with Luke’s doesn’t make their relationship’s durability any too plausible, and the equally odd, cursorily sketched backstory of Luke’s parents increases the sense of improbability. Adam finds faith of some kind at the end, but what it means or how it relates to the context is never made clear.
The acting under Sheryl Kaller’s directing, all extremely good—in addition to the principals, Maddie Corman is brightly funny as the gal-pal and Sean Dugan gripping as a tormented co-religionist of Luke’s—blends with the bright ingenuity of Nauffts’s dialogue to offer distractions from the somber matters at hand, instead of addressing them. Even with the transferred show’s newly tightened focus, the dark unhappiness with which Dugan invests his role still comes closer than anything else onstage to conveying the real agony souls go through in search of salvation.
In Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Book of Grace (Public Theater), the title’s two nouns are both literal: Grace (Elizabeth Marvel), housewife and perennial optimist, writes down all her happy thoughts in a book. Of course, she has to keep it secret from her unyielding spouse, a border patrolman named Vet (John Doman). Grace, embodying the quality she’s named for, sees the world as full of innate goodness; hard-ass Vet sees it as a perpetual war of Us against Them. Unsure which side Grace is on, he’s dug a grave-size (Grace-size?) hole in the backyard as a warning to her. He’s even less sure about his long-estranged son from an earlier relationship, Buddy (Amari Cheatom). Just back from the military (hence also a vet, as it were), Buddy carries explosives in his luggage that the Army has trained him to use, plus a lot of unsorted emotional baggage that might make Vet the likeliest target for his terrorism.
Parks throws a variety of theatrical surprises into this situation, but they tend, rather more surprisingly, not to alter it. A writer whose practice is to resist narrative, she seems more than usually stuck with her setup; her language, so supple and evocative in a piece like The America Play, here reiterates predictably instead of flowing. The allegorical structure never deepens or burgeons, leaving its sense all too easy to grasp: militaristic white macho male, fearing otherness, oppresses woman and alienated son, the latter played by an African-American (though not specified as such in the script). The result is a kind of nagging frustration, relieved in James MacDonald’s production only by the warmth of Marvel’s and Cheatom’s performances. To gauge the difficulty of animating Parks’s rock-hard material, note that even the normally flawless Marvel slips once or twice, displaying flashes of an alert sophistication very far from her character’s pure-hearted hopefulness.
No actress ever embodied alert sophistication more notoriously than Tallulah Bankhead, born to wealth and privilege, who kept the free spirit of the 1920s alive, along with its self-destructive streak, till the combination of the two had worn out both her career and her body. Tallulah never did things by halves, and Valerie Harper, embodying her in a klutzy excuse for a play called Looped, attains theatrical grace by emulating, triumphantly, Bankhead’s will to exceed. Matthew Lombardo’s script and Rob Ruggiero’s direction supply no real sense of Bankhead’s art, wit, politics, or personality, but the piled-up wisecracks and anecdotes, when zinged by Harper with immaculately nuanced ferocity, magically summon the Bankhead spirit.