January 24, 2015

"I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard" is Merciless

Anger, not the forgiveness of sins, is the guiding principle in I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, the brand new two-hander by Halley Feiffer that opened at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 on Tuesday.

Its sole characters are David Berryman, an award-winning but aging playwright; and his twentysomething daughter Ella, a fledgling actress. The main part of the 90-minute play takes place in the kitchen of their Upper West Side apartment (oddly designed by Mark Wendland so that it’s hard to see everything that’s happening on stage no matter where you'r sitting).  

Father and daughter are waiting up for reviews of an avant-garde production of The Seagull in which Ella has been cast as the morose Masha. Her dad thinks she should have pushed to play the more impassioned Nina.

In fact, David has lots of opinions and during a near monologue, fueled by lots of wine and drugs and interrupted only by fawning interjections from Ella, he lets loose on her director whom he considers “a formerly-famous-now-completely-washed-up-hack” and on critics, whom he calls a “sick cadre of pathetic, sniveling, tiny men with micropenises and no imaginations.”

He also calls his estranged sister a “dyke” and his ill wife “a cunt.” In short, he’s not a nice guy. And as the evening progresses, Ella discovers just how awful her father can be. The second scene of the play flashes forward five years and shows how their interactions have shaped the woman and the artist she becomes.

Reed Birney, who, let’s be frank, can do no wrong in my eyes, and the talented young actress Betty Gilpin, who is best known for her role as the ditzy doctor on the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie,” are excellent as they explore the volatile elements of love and hate, pride and envy and even the sexual tensions that erupt from time to time in most relationships between parents and adult children.

Birney, who so often plays milquetoasty guys, looks, under Trip Cullman’s finely-tuned direction, to be having a ball as the overbearing David but also manages to be heartbreaking in the final moments of the play. And Gilpin, even when largely restricted to just one or two words an utterance, does an incredible job at conveying how both awed and bored Emma is by her father and yet how much she yearns to please him.

It is, of course, impossible not to draw parallels between the lives of the characters Birney and Gilpin play and those of the playwright, who is also an actress, and her father, the celebrated cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer.

The facts that connect David and Jules are so similar (being raised in the Bronx, becoming a teen apprentice to a slightly older master of his art form—the fictional playwright Milo Koppler for David, the cartoonist Will Eisner for Jules—winning a Pulitzer) are obvious. 

One can only guess at the emotional verisimilitude of the father-daughter relationship but it’s hard to believe that this play would have been written by anyone who didn’t have some daddy issues—and lingering anger about them—to work out.

Feiffer knew that people like me were going to be speculating about these kinds of things and so she gives Ella a second-scene speech in which she challenges the audience to resist trying to determine if a work is autobiographical. Instead, she suggests, "Why don’t you ask yourself something like this: 'Did this play move me?' 'Did I relate to it?' 'Did some part of me wish I hadn’t related to it?'”

My answers are: yes (even though it made me cringe in moments) yes (I've had my own experiences, albeit thankfully less toxic, with demanding parents) and yes (cause I wish family ties, including the Feiffers', didn't have to be so knotty). However, I also suspect that dinners at the Feiffers' are going to be tense for a while.

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