“Amazing Grace,” the salvation anthem that’s offered spiritual uplift for more than two centuries, is the number-one song of all time, with more than 6,600 known recordings.
And it’s fitting that the hymn has found its way into Neil LaBute’s play about redemption, “The Break of Noon,” presented by MCC Theater.
The polarizing LaBute, whose specialty is men behaving despicably (“reasons to be pretty,” “Fat Pig”), has created another contemptible male, generically named John Smith.
But now, LaBute may have developed a conscience. His miserable wretch of a man, amidst a horrific office shooting, hears the voice of God and becomes the only employee saved. Not only from the lethal machine gun, but also from his own errant ways.
Nothing short of a miracle, right?
The transfixing opening monologue, delivered by the anguished John (David Duchovny) in a bloodied shirt and with a bandage on his ankle, detailing the horrors of the massacre where 37 co-workers were cut down in cold blood, sounds convincing enough.
But in the scenes that follow, doubters begin to poke holes in John’s story. His faith never waivers, but our faith, well, that’s a different matter. It’s the creeping mistrust — the nagging rift between intent and reality — that lies at the heart of this alternately engaging and exasperating play.
In his efforts to spread his newfound faith, John runs up against a series of roadblocks. His lawyer (John Earl Jelks) sees his sole-survivor status as a chance to make some bucks (a photo that Smith snapped during the carnage fetches a cool million). His ex-wife, Ginger (Amanda Peet), still reeling from their disastrous 12-year marriage, rejects his overtures for reconciliation. A former dalliance, Jesse (also played by Peet), throws a conniption when he suggests they come clean about their affair. Jenny (Tracee Chimo), an unctuous talk show host, chides him so viciously that he walks off the set.
The most disturbing scene finds Smith engaging the services of Gigi (also played by Chimo), a curvaceous escort in a French Maid costume, supposedly to test his resolve. In a seriously sick twist only LaBute could pull off, Gigi, whose real name is Jill, turns out to be connected to the massacre, and has an epiphany of her own.
Duchovny, Golden Globe winner for his work in Showtime’s “Californication” and, of course, in “The X-Files,” is well cast. He persuasively conveys the brooding conviction of a man born again, bent on doing good works, while also offering glimmers of a possible charlatan lurking within. Still, Duchnovy is saddled with delivering dubious lines like “God stepped in to save me” and “Goodness is all that matters” without blinking an eye.
With his personal life mirroring his depraved behavior in “Californication” (in 2008 he did a stint in rehab for sexual addiction), the rough-hewn, 50-year old actor is quintessential LaBute material.
The most audacious roles — the acerbic talk show host and the agonized escort — belong to Chimo, and she nails them both, attacking the over-the-top scenes (in one, she wields a rubber dildo that morphs into a feather duster) with unbridled ferocity. As part of the award-winning ensemble of last year’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” Chimo threatened to steal the show. She repeats that threat here.
Under the steadfast direction of Jo Bonney, “The Break of Noon,” which refers to the moment the gunman raided the office, exudes a surreal, comic air with menacing undercurrents that, in sporadic flashes, prove oddly unsettling.
If you haven’t noticed, all the characters’ names begin with the letter J or soft G. Even the unseen killer’s name is Juan. Does this have some deep significance or is LaBute just being self-consciously cute? A similar question hangs above the entire play.
THE BREAK OF NOON
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St. near Bedford St.
Through Dec. 22
Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.
Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.