A wide-eyed evangelical couple has moved to a cookie-cutter Florida rental to open a chain of gospel hotels, the pitch being, naturally, "Where would Jesus stay?" The exterminator is a kooky German codger who says "skedaddle" and "okey-dokey" before spraying toxins. And the next-door neighbor is a depressive computer genius who appears capable of eating his own face off, if only half of his face had not been ripped away already in a car accident.
So much of "Grace" sounds like an easy joke that, when the noose tightens, the surprise cuts sharp and deep. This strangely entertaining, seriously unsettling play, which opened on Broadway with a spectacular offbeat quartet of actors, runs just 90 minutes and keeps teetering on becoming a glib cartoon about religion.
But the actors -- Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington and Ed Asner -- make it impossible to look away long enough to doubt their characters. And playwright Craig Wright -- writer for "Six Feet Under" and creator of "Dirty Sexy Money" -- asks basic questions about the meaning of life with such originality that, scene by blackout scene (on Beowulf Boritt's simply ingenious set), the outcome is always in doubt.
This is an especially good trick because, in the opening moments of director Dexter Bullard's expertly unpredictable production, we are shown its violent ending. The husband, played with sweetly accumulating desperation by Rudd, shoots a lot of people. The action rewinds and, suddenly, we are meeting him and his wife (Arrington) as they wait for the $9 million that a mysterious investor promised to wire from Zurich.
Shannon, best known for playing the fallen FBI wacko in "Boardwalk Empire," has spent much of the last half year giving galvanic performances Off-Broadway. In his Broadway debut, he reveals himself to be one of the mesmerizing actors of our day. As the damaged neighbor with good reasons to doubt faith, this daring talent makes us dread getting under his skin while seducing us with the complexity of his spirit.
Asner's character -- the ostensibly adorable old exterminator with the Nazi horror stories -- flirts dangerously with the cutes. But he, too, brings unexpected shading to a dark, peculiar drama that finds hope in an unfair world of cancer and looters, termites and lost love -- for a moment, anyway.
WHERE Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.
INFO $37-$132; 212-239-6200; graceonbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Dark, original treat