NEW YORK — When Craig Wright's offbeat play "Grace" was produced at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie in 2006, the central problem was one that befalls many contemporary dramas seemingly about conservative Christians. The central characters, Steve and Sara, a couple striving to create a chain of Christian motels in ethically swampy Florida even as their marriage falls apart, did not seem sufficiently real. They felt like easy targets.
The new Broadway production of this same play, which has opened here under Dexter Bullard's continued direction in a production with a creative team mostly composed of Chicago theater artists has, to a large extent, solved that problem, both through some judicious rewrites and through the shrewd casting, in the roles of Steve and Sara, of Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington, both of whom flesh out struggling entrepreneurs convinced that Christians can be persuaded to stay where they can pray. Rudd's Steve is still a little overripe to be believable in his naivete, but this actor manages to forge a vulnerable guy about whom you can care.
What hasn't been solved, though, is the play's self-destructive determination not to be a linear, straightforward, human drama, even though the straightforward human bits are the bits that actually work, thanks in no small part to a moving, richly textured, breathtakingly detailed and wholly distinctive performance from Michael Shannon. The A Red Orchid Theatre company member was not yet well known outside Chicago theaters when he first played this role in 2006 and even now, after his movie and TV career have taken off, is still being viewed here as a surprising discovery, much like his longtime collaborator Tracy Letts, working a few blocks away in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to similar acclaim.
In "Grace," Shannon plays Sam, a neighbor of Steve and Sara's living in an identical condo who turns out to be the disruptive force in this marriage, even though he carries a huge facial scar, following an accident that killed the woman he loved. Working opposite his real-life partner, Shannon turns in a beautifully restless piece of acting — matched, in many lovely ways, by the stellar work of Arrington herself — that not only reveals a remarkable and increasingly skilled American actor at the peak of his powers, but sustains a good swath of Wright's improved but still not wholly satisfying drama.
One of the visual ideas behind "Grace," deftly interpreted by Bullard, is that the two identical apartments (one belonging to Steve and Sara, the other to Sam) are collapsed into one set, with the simultaneous action layered one on top of the other. Bullard (whose Broadway production is actually smaller than the one in Skokie) helps us keep track of that clever idea exceptionally well, but that's more than enough formative focus for a 90-minute play with other, more human and important agendas. When the play starts moving backward and forward in time, especially toward its uneven climax, the devices start to overwhelm, and you find yourself pulled away from the simply gorgeous clutch of personal crises that Arrington and Shannon (and, for sure, Bullard) have built so carefully right before your eyes.
There are other (intentional) chronological stutters and formative hiccups; few of them work because they don't establish a consistent set of rules and they drop out of the play for three-quarters of its running time, mercifully allowing the actors to propel the play directly forward.
When these fine actors (Ed Asner has an amusing turn as a pest exterminator with a past) are allowed just to build the blocks of these characters, "Grace" turns out to be quite involving. Wright can write about long-term relationships far better than most; he seems to have such sympathy for the way in which our partners can take us down roads maybe no longer of our own desiring, and yet he's an unsentimental type, ready and willing to stick a knife in his characters' guts and suddenly hold them responsible for their actions. When we're right there with these souls in those moments, "Grace" is very poignant. When it jumps nervously away from truth, it's hard to see what it gains.
"Grace" plays at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.; graceonbroadway.com