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Leaps of Faith

Christian soldiers Steve and Sara (Photo by Anthony Masters)

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.

At first, Benito, dressed in cammies, tries to absorb the barbs that the now-surly Gabriela throws his way, but soon her disgust for men playing war and her complaints about life in their barren corner of the world cause him to lash out and eventually confide a small horror story that’s been gnawing at him. Gabriela’s not moved by his candor. After 11 years of marriage, she wants something dreamier and more lyrical than she now has under the sweltering sky. Perhaps even scarier to Gabriela than Benito’s admission of having an Iraqi village leveled is his burning desire to stay in the Army nine more years so he can retire as a 20-year man with full benefits. He kills on command and she wants out.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera shows a gifted eye for scenery, and Kimberly Lyons’ set, located on a relatively confined space, explodes with details large and small: the cyclone fence pretending to safeguard privacy and to protect the couple from the desert sand; the car carcass that Moon reclines upon and the electric garage door that rolls up, like a castle gate, to reveal the married couple’s bedroom. Rivera has departed from some of the playwright’s original stage directions and, by doing so, makes the production very much his own.

As Gabriela, Tomas, who looks something like Joan Jett from her Runaways period, delivers the fire her role demands, but Arquelio doesn’t put up enough fight in return, and she ends up running circles around him. The Obie-winning New York production at the Public Theater featured Rosie Perez as Gabriela, yet it was John Ortiz, not the voluble Perez, who won a performance award that year, showing that Benito can be a formidable character in the right hands.

In the end, the problem isn’t just that References to Salvador Dali, with its half-baked poetry and Southwestern-myth motif, hasn’t aged well, but that the play doesn’t stick to a consistent aesthetic: One minute it’s magical realism, the next it’s The Honeymooners. The last act suggests that everything we’ve seen has been a dream and that Benito’s true homecoming is at hand. As in Grace, what follows may be a rewind or a completely different story, but by now we’ll gladly take a pass on finding out which it will be.?

GRACE | By CRAIG WRIGHT | FURIOUS THEATRE COMPANY at the BALCONY THEATRE, PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Through November 11 | (626) 356-PLAY or?www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

REFERENCES TO SALVADOR DALI MAKE ME HOT | By JOSÉ RIVERA | At ART/WORKS THEATRE, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through November 4 | (323) 960-7785

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