I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard: Theater review by Adam Feldman
Is Reed Birney the best stage actor in New York? The case for that claim continues to grow in Halley Feiffer’s brutally effective I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, in which the protean Birney plays David, a truculent egotist who has drawn from his traumatic working-class Brooklyn background to reach great success as a playwright. For the first hour, David subjects his tremulous young daughter, Ella (Nurse Jackie’s Betty Gilpin), an early-career actor, to a viciously funny harangue about all that is wrong with the theater: the hacks, the queers, the cowards and (all three of those combined!) the critics. Fueled by booze, pot and coke, he builds Ella up one moment, then rips her down the next, like a predatory pickup artist at a bar. And Ella—scrunched, simpering, pathetically eager to agree—hangs on his words until she nearly chokes.
In the play’s shorter second scene, set five years later, both characters have undergone radical changes. Hard and mean, in a tight red dress that makes her look like a thin knife dipped in blood, Ella has written a play of her own, also based on past trauma. Like father, like daughter—and you may well find you don’t like either of them very much. But under the direction of Trip Cullman, who has a well-honed ear for social cruelty, the two excellent actors aren’t playing for sympathy. In the imitative structure of abuse that Feiffer’s tragicomedy depicts, David and Ella are figures of alternating fear and pity: artistic arsonists stranded by their bridge-burning fire of ambition.
THE BOTTOM LINE Feiffer takes a tough look at the forces that can bring us to our knees.—Adam Feldman
Atlantic Stage 2 (see Off Broadway). By Halley Feiffer. With Reed Birney, Betty Gilpin. Directed by Trip Cullman. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
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