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James Harvey Ward and Janine Venable in The Awful Grace of God at The Other Space @ The Actors Company. (Photo by Ed Krieger)
James Harvey Ward and Janine Venable in The Awful Grace of God at The Other Space @ The Actors Company. (Photo by Ed Krieger)

The Awful Grace of God

Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Go the Distance Productions at The Other Space @ The Actors Company
Through May 28

For a man who’s spent the better part of the last decade acting on TV shows written by feminist showrunner Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange is the New Black), Michael Harney is a surprisingly poor writer of female characters. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems with The Awful Grace of God, a collection of six one-act plays written by Harney, which plays through May 28 in Hollywood.

The show, which features a very large ensemble (a few roles are double-cast) plays like a series of vignettes that peek into critical moments in various characters’ lives. One man discovers that his friend works for the mob, and commits suicide. Two parents come to terms with the death of their child. A killer gets killed in a motel room. A man’s family objects to his alcoholism. A man professes his love for his therapist. A man who’s chained to a pole hears words.

Though these are all supposed to be pivotal moments in the characters’ lives and deaths (a third of the one-acts end with murder or suicide), none of them make much impact. The acting, under Mark Kemble’s direction, is overwrought, and the writing is trite rather than moving. Everything comes to a head in the last piece, titled “Through.” For most of it, a bleeding black man (Oscar Best), chained to a pole, hears a voice (Janine Venable). The voice soothes him and helps him realize he has the strength to break free on his own — which is remarkable since, to an outside ear, this voice is uttering a string of nonsense words that are meant to sound profound but are ultimately meaningless and contradictory. These pseudo-mantras go on and on over the course of 10 to 15 minutes, which gives the audience plenty of time to reflect on the tacky choice to evoke images of slavery for no particular reason.

It’s not the only tacky choice on display, either. In “Surrender,” the characters (Venable and Tim DeZarn) simulate sex on a bench situated uncomfortably close to the audience. “Need (Shelter from the Storm)” is entirely about a man (Marshall McCabe) who repeatedly declares his love for his therapist (Marie Broderick), who then repeatedly tells him she’s not interested. Then, miraculously, she’s suddenly in love with him (after all, any woman can be won over if you tell her that you love her enough times, right?) Strangely, that piece is the best acted of the night.

Overall, Harney spends too much time trying to humanize characters — specifically white, male and middle-aged ones who don’t need to be humanized. Take “The Long Walk Home,” his piece on the devastating effects of alcoholism. Instead of exploring the points of view of the alcoholic man’s (James Harvey Ward) wife or children, who are living with him and suffering his emotional and physical abuse firsthand, the whole story is about the man and his father.

There’s a wealth of interesting stories in the world, so it’s perplexing that Harney would choose to retell familiar ones without bringing a fresh sensibility to any of them. Perhaps he stuck to the old writing mantra, “write what you know,” and so wrote stories about white men, like himself. Fine — but when one’s supporting characters, who are mostly women and people of color, are so poorly drawn, it creates the sense that stories about women and people of color are unimportant, just background details to support every white man’s emotional journey. 

 

The Other Space @ The Actors Company, 916A N Formosa Ave, West Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m.; through May 28; plays411.com/GraceOfGod. Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

 

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