ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard
By Elyse Sommer
Mr. Birney's potent portrait of the volatile supportive father indeed has its funny moments. But, most of I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard's 90 minutes are more harrowing than hilarious. Not a bad thing, unless you're strictly interested in light entertainment. Hallie Feiffer has written a chillingly complex drama about the way familial patterns of dysfunction tend to repeat themselves. Given the intensely emotional performances, it's a compelling theatrical experience currently on the boards.
Birney, whose low-key profile as a solid character actor went up more than a few notches when he got naked in SoHo Rep's 2008 revival of Sarah Kane's Blasted (our review ), doesn't bare all this time — that is, not literally. But his emotionally naked portrait of David is probably even more fearless. He lays bare this man's unresolved emotional baggage, dating back to his childhood and its effect on his personality, his career and his relationship with his daughter.
The father's character is the showier role. However, Gilpin (probably best known as Dr. Carrie Roman in Showtime's Nurse Jackie) makes Ella far more than a sounding board for what at first seems like an only occasionally interrupted monologue by David. She nails the giddiness and insecurity of the still unknown young actress eager to follow in her famous father's footsteps — as much for her own sake as to please him.
Like Birney, Gilpin's physical performance is revelatory. It's riveting to watch her take on the look of a frightened deer caught in the glare of a car headlight; even more so, to see his mood shift when she doesn't just nod in agreement with his every word. And, not to spoil any surprises, the longer first scene is a pitch perfect prelude to the devastating turnaround that takes place five years later.
Feiffer several times uses Estrogen's "nothing to be done" in Waiting for Godot to pave the way for the inevitable explosion of what starts out as an evening in which a father mitigates his daughter's anxiety about waiting to find out whether she's moved to the next rung of the ladder to fame. But the theatrical references don't stop there.
It's David's often outrageous comments on plays, complete with snippets of dialogue and lyrics, that propel us entertainingly and amusingly into the play's much darker territory. His recollection of Sondheim's West Side Story when Broadway tickets could be had for $6 prompts a wonderfully relaxed moment that has both him and Ella singing bits of "Somewhere" which they obviously both love. But it doesn't prevent the shift to that darkness in which a glass of wine escalates into too many glasses, as well as less acceptable relaxants, the kind that the average father is unlikely to share with his daughter.
The long title is explained during David's reflections on people who disappoint his expectations. When his first theatrical mentor's reaction is counter to David's low opinion of a performance of his play, he calls him a traitor and declares "Im gonna pray for you so hard I'm gonna make my knees bleed." To support Ella he tells her "you're going to be number one in my prayers tonight" and tells her that instead of praying for huzzahs from the critics she should instead pity and pray for them. Yet support and praise for her talent is a case of damning with faint praise as it's pretty obvious he feels that she should have managed to get the starring role.
Director Trip Cullman's sensitive, sharply paced direction keeps us on edge and involved in watching the dark nuances of the father-daughter relationship unfold. Mark Wendland has created a set that easily shifts the action to a different location even though there's no intermission. The main scene is authentically detailed with framed items from David's career. A minor prop, the kitchen trash can, is not just there but an effective tool to illustrate building tensions. Ben Stanton and Daniel Kruger lighting and sound support the dark mood.
Choreographer Sam Pinkleton helps Birney move with painful grace through his final appearance. But don't count on my mention of West Side Story to end things with an upbeat song and dance from that or any other musical.
Ms Feiffer's own father, the multi-talented Jules Feiffer, has famously and profitably expressed his anger about social issues as well as his mother as a cartoonist, graphic novelist, playwright and memoirist. The fact that Feiffer is an actress as well as a playwright is likely to have viewers to see bits and pieces of her dad in David. However, this is not a bio-drama but first and foremost a universal tragedy the misguided parental love.
To read our interview with Reed Birney, while I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard was in rehearsals click here.