“Awful Grace”: We Can’t Care about 2-D People

I don’t do negative reviews.  But sometimes, as critics, we encounter things that must be addressed.

Let’s be clear:  The Awful Grace of God, at The Actors’ Company, does not raise ethical issues that demand censure.  These aren’t sharks after your money, in return for phoned-in posturing.  Nor are these earnest beginners, paraded before family, friends and  “industry people” by unscrupulous “teachers.”

The folks in this show are professionals, with solid resumes.  And they’re clearly serious.  They have a story to tell (a half-dozen linked stories, actually), and everyone gives full-out effort, from designers to actors, in parts large and small.

Bechir Sylvain, Curtis Belz.

And yet … and yet … I left at intermission.

I’d come to the theatre eager and curious; but the first three pieces left me feeling drugged, numb.  Striding around outside, breathing deeply, I coaxed myself:  “Come on.  Don’t you want to see where this is going, what becomes of these people?”  The answer was “No.” Before I reached the car, I was wrestling with “Why not?”  And I still am; hence, this review.

As I considered the people I’d just met – two guys on a stoop in Queens, an older couple at a summer cabin in midwinter, a young couple in a cheap motel — I realized I didn’t quite believe in them, and felt perhaps their author didn’t either.

The actors in the first play, Off, came the closest.  Curtis Belz, as Joe, and Bechir Sylvain, as Stan, kept hooking me with little surprises; I felt like Stan, who’s unable to break off the conversation and leave.  Playwright Michael Harney turns his cards over very slowly, one by one – but Belz and Sylvain play them with panache.

Then we’re outside a cabin, while Dodge (Tim DeZarn) blusters and Ellen (Jean Venable) shivers.  They’re on an annual pilgrimage in honor of someone who’s left a hole in their lives.  But they don’t talk about him (though each, when alone, talks to him).  Instead, they chat and squabble, have sex, and drink coffee.  That’s Surrender.

Then we’re in a motel room with Rose (Agatha Nowicki) when  Willy (Johnny Whitworth) bursts in with a bagful of money.  She’s not thrilled, she’s worried.  Turns out she’s right; he got it for killing someone.  She packs and heads out.  He throws her onto the bed and forces sex with her, magically making her fall in love again.  Then a thug walks into their room, shoots them and takes the money.

“Gratuitous.”  “Unearned.”

These apply most obviously to the killing of Willy and Rose.  We’ve learned nothing about who Rose is, or why she’s with Willy, or in this motel room; we learn no more about him.  They don’t have lives, or histories.  Instead of meeting a fate that might be “awful grace,” they’re simply slaughtered.

With Dodge and Ellen, too, we only get what we can glean in the moment.  The reason they’re enduring this graceless winter is so important they can’t even speak about it.  Yet we never learn what it is, who “he” was; nor do we learn who either of them is, has been, hopes to be.  They remain strangers to us.

Joe and Stan do eke out some of themselves.  We learn that Joe’s a wounded vet, who’s never recovered his health or become a part of civilian life; we learn that Stan has given up his dreams to work as a mob enforcer.  We expect something more — we get Joe’s suicide.  With no sense of why it happens now, instead of at any other time.

Gratuitous.  Unearned.  Things that happen because they seem dramatic.  (Not only death, but also, sex:  In two of the three plays, we sit through a complete sex act.  Only one can be said to add anything to the story, or our sense of who these folks are.)

The climax of a play is dramatic — moving or meaningful — only if we know and care about the characters.  Harney’s program bio suggests that as a social worker and prisoner advocate, the people he’s writing about became very real to him.

He now must make them real to us.  If we’re to feel “awful grace” falling upon them, we need him to take us deeper into their lives.
Or else we’re just watching cardboard cutouts burn in a pretend apocalypse.  If people we care about are cruelly used by the fates, we’ll feel the abrupt injustice of it — we won’t need masked strangers with guns leaping on and offstage.

Deepening characters does, of course, take time; but this is theatre, not TV (where Harney and most of his cohort have spent the bulk of their careers).  A scene ends when you say it does, not when it’s time for an ad break.  No hurry.

And by the way, part of a character’s being real is her or his having basic human dignity, even if another character is trying to take it away.  When Willy rapes Rose into docile submission (a horrid old trope), it’s the playwright who’s taking her dignity away.  I wanted to shout, “What rock have you been living under?”  Well, he has been pushing the boulder of a hit TV show uphill every week …

A final note:  We rely on the director to integrate all the elements, like a conductor blending an orchestra.  But Awful Grace’s ambient sound competed with the actors – who were projecting just fine — and sometimes overwhelmed them.  Similarly, moving furniture between scenes slows the show’s rhythm, pulling apart stories that want to be tied together.

The Awful Grace of God isn’t yet a successful play (or series of plays). But it isn’t a failure, either.  It deserves a rewrite, one in which the author takes advantage of the time theatre allows to develop real, three-dimensional characters worthy of his actors and his other collaborators.
The Awful Grace of God, by Michael Harney, directed by Mark Kemble.
Presented by Go the Distance Productions, in the Other Space at The Actors’ Company complex, 916 N. Formosa Ave., LA 90046.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00;
through May 28th.

Tickets:  <www.plays411.com/graceofgod>  or  (323) 960-7784.