Suzan-Lori Parks' "The Book of Grace" is less poetic and exhilarating than her 2002 Pulitzer-Prize winning "Topdog/Underdog" and more structurally straightforward than "-A," her gritty and provocative 2003 epic with the unprintable title and the sympathetic abortionist.
But what is this latest drama at the Public Theater, where Parks, the first African-American woman with a Pulitzer, holds its first Master Writer Chair? I'm guessing here, but the powerfully blunt, ultimately unsatisfying work seems to be a kind of moral parable: a struggle between the pure good of an abused but crazy-optimistic wife named Grace (Elizabeth Marvel) and the pure evil of her crazy-brutal husband, a rigid xenophobe of a border guard named Vet (John Doman). They're both white and just might represent the dual sides of America.
Into their grim house on the Texas border comes Buddy (Amari Cheatom), Vet's estranged son with a black woman. The mother died, her home was repossessed and Buddy, a former soldier looking for work and identity, returns after 15 years to forgive, perhaps, but never forget the "unspeakable things" Vet did to him. Buddy has brought hope but, just in case, he also brought grenades and a knowledge of the Declaration of Independence - especially the radicalizing Preamble about the right to rebel against repressive government.
The plot is framed by chapters in a book "of good things" that Grace, a diner waitress, has been secretly writing, ever since Vet dug that hole in the yard to remind her of her own borders. Titles of chapters are typed as projections on the blown-up sepia photo of the house with the indoor-outdoor sand floor (designed by Eugene Lee). A twangy Grace voice-over reads the words, with "footnotes" acted out as flashbacks by the trustingly childlike but erotic woman.
James Macdonald, a specialist in Caryl Churchill's ominous adventures, directs the long hour-and-45-minutes with tension and invention. The cast is raw and courageous. But the larger metaphor, if it is a metaphor, is either far too obvious or way too obscure. And if it isn't a metaphor, is there a point to all this ugliness?
WHAT "The Book of Grace"
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $30-70; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Good, evil and not much point