Woolly Mammoth’s “Grace”

Imagine releasing a 5-year-old into the kitchen to make cookies for his mother. Most likely, he’d throw everything yummy into a big red plastic bowl and mash it all up: sugar, cinnamon, bananas, chocolate chips, gummi bears, frozen French fries, lollipops and Kraft Mac’n’Cheese. Similarly, “Grace,” by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is an absurd mishmash of ideas, with chunks of half-baked concepts and the occasional nugget of deliciousness.

The absurdity of the show is apparent early on – the very first scene opens with a gunshot and the anguished cry, “I want to go back! Remember the little monkeys?” These prophetic utterances are followed by a Mamet-length monologue about universal love and life. However, not only do the actors spew such lines as, “No one can convince anyone about anything without words,” but they have been shoved into an awkward staging situation. Neighbors in identical apartments share the same stage space, but with little indication that they are in different rooms.

The set, with its bland, blank, stucco walls accurately conjures Florida. But one wishes the plot were as simple as the set. Sadly, the actors never establish the emotional connection with the audience required for the dramatic climax. As there are only four characters, the fact that two of them can’t act doesn’t help the bullet-ridden plot lurch forward. In a nutshell, Sara (the bouncy Jennifer Mendenhall) and Steve (the cracked out David Fendig) are self-professed “prayer warriors” who have recently moved from Minnesota to Florida to chase Sam’s dream: establishing a chain of gospel-themed hotels. Their next-door neighbor, Sam (Paul Morella) is a computer genius who works for NASA and has just survived a terrible car accident that decapitated his fianc?e and left him drastically scarred, both physically and mentally. With Steve spending all day searching for funding, Sara wanders into Sam’s apartment to play nurse, leading to the inevitable affair.

But wait, what about the fourth character? Where does he fit into this love triangle? Well, he doesn’t. Karl, the German exterminator straight out of Brooklyn, appears in three scenes to diffuse tension and provide comic relief … while confabulating about his life during the Holocaust.

The fact remains that author Craig Wright (well-known for his “Six Feet Under” credits) has simply tried to cram too many ideas into one show. Tech support, facial scarring, Jesus, the aforementioned monkeys, Holocaust and universal love are all touched upon in the first 10 minutes. Director Michael John Garc?s doesn’t offer much support and leaves his actors struggling with this dense text, floundering around the stage.

Perhaps with different staging or an edited script, “Grace” could make the leap from mediocre to good, attainting a level of homemade cookies minus the gummi bears and frozen French fries.

“Grace” runs until Dec.19 at The Warehouse Theater, 1021 7th St. N.W.

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