By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
A dark room explodes in gunfire, and we can see the shooter, who stands over two bodies, place the pistol to his own head. Suddenly, time flows backward, and the scene, with its characters, “rewinds” to the point where the man first had to decide whether or not to pull the trigger. Then the story begins. Some may find Craig Wright’s new play a little too gimmicky for its own good, but for all its camera-driven histrionics, Grace, currently on view at the Furious Theatre Company, is a brave and pitiless attempt to understand the sources of faith and devotion.
The story involves a Christian couple newly arrived in Florida from Minnesota. Steve and Sara (Brad Price and Sara Hennessy) are no sackcloth ascetics but 30-something believers in the Lord’s rewarding on Earth those who do the heavy lifting in his name. From their rattan-furnished apartment, they plan the creation of a religious-themed hotel empire, and seem well on their way, thanks to money from an enigmatic investor.
Other people in Steve and Sara’s life include Karl (Dana Kelly Jr.), an acerbic old German exterminator (a bug man, not the other kind), and Sam (Eric Pargac), a NASA scientist who spends his time on the phone angrily berating the tech-support staff of a photo-software company. While most of us will recognize Sam’s frustration at being placed on hold and passed from one tech to another, the urgency behind his calls is painfully unique: The photos he’s attempting to upload to his laptop — images of an Italian vacation spent with his recently killed fiancée — are vanishing from both his camera and his computer.
The irrepressibly optimistic Christians soon meet this morose man whose head is bandaged from the car accident that decapitated his future wife. It’s clear that “prayer warrior” Steve’s hotel deal is going nowhere, and that his blind trust in a man he has never seen (with the heavenly name Himmelman, no less) constitutes a modern retelling of the Book of Job. Racked by a train of setbacks and a mysterious skin affliction, Steve (who merely exclaims “Dog!” rather than his Lord’s name) takes out his growing anger on Sara, who, in her loneliness, discovers an oddly kindred spirit in the damaged Sam.
We remember where this is all headed — to the play’s opening scene and a realization that people choose whether or not to pull triggers. This 100-minute one-act has many moments of dark laughter, but takes no potshots at religion or trust. A Minnesotan like many of his characters, Wright is a former born-again Christian, and what he offers are lived-through insights and more questions than any play can answer. Individual free will and the collapse of romantic bonds have previously been examined by Wright in such plays as Orange Flower Water and Recent Tragic Events, but here he wonders about the basic tenets of faith that underlie both love and spiritual views of fate.
Director Dámaso Rodgriguez has assembled a committed cast for this L.A. premiere, with Pargac excelling in a role that could have easily been all shouts and table banging; instead, his wounded Sam is a nuanced figure of halting gestures and moral confusion. The action moves swiftly along Shawn Lee’s set, which serves as the same home for the two households, suggesting that we all occupy the same space — or emptiness.
Whenever I open a program and find characters named Coyote, Cat and Moon, I sense I’m looking at either an old Padua Hills festival guide or a Sedona restaurant menu. Only yesterday, it seems, everyone was falling all over Southwestern iconography and cuisine — as well as José Rivera’s play References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot. His semisurreal, marital comedy made a splash premiering at South Coast Repertory in 2000 and later won the best-play Obie, but only six years later, it feels terribly dated, a Zuni clay oven stashed in someone’s garage. Nevertheless, it is now enjoying a spirited, if belated, Los Angeles premiere at Art/Works Theatre.
The story opens in Barstow, California, with said Coyote (Justin Huen) and Cat (Minerva Vier) holding a warily seductive conversation as Moon (Alejandro Furth) sits atop a car sadly blowing his harmonica. Coyote appears as an old-school vato, with a barrio swagger and a blue bandanna carefully stretched across his forehead, while Cat exudes a come-and-get-it eagerness.
“You’re full of secrets and worms,” Cat tells Coyote, while Moon soon observes, “They say from the tears of women are civilizations made.” Although lines like these foreshadow the kind of sounds-deep/means-nothing dialogue we’re in for, Cat and Coyote neatly parallel the story’s main human characters. And, for that matter, the animals’ confrontation suggests the life-and-death sexual tension that rises when Sergeant Benito Rubio (Ken Arquelio) returns home from the Persian Gulf War to find his wife, Gabriela (Maria Tomas), restless, questioning and dressed in tight jean shorts. Gabriela, just before Benito’s homecoming, had a near fling with a local 14-year-old named Martín (Ray Santiago), and has taken to sleeping outdoors and wandering about her backyard naked. So we know someone is going to have hell to pay.