Tuesday, January 20, 2015

139. Review of I'M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD (January 18, 2015)

"Like Father, Like Daughter"

Halley Feiffer, a sharply talented actress-playwright whose career is on an upward trajectory, is the daughter of the master cartoonist, playwright, and screenwriter Jules Feiffer. It’s nearly impossible to ignore this as you watch her scabrously funny yet painfully personal play, I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD, at the Atlantic Stage 2, since this relentlessly engaging, tragicomic two-hander is about the relationship between Ella (Betty Gilpin, daughter of actor Jack Gilpin), a young actress (and, ultimately, playwright), and David (Reed Birney), her famous playwright father.

The 90-minute, intermissionless play has two scenes, the first and longest being set in the naturalistically detailed kitchen of the Upper West Side apartment where David and Ella live with David’s ailing wife (briefly heard offstage). They’re waiting for the New York Times review—which will be read off a smartphone—of an experimental Off Broadway revival of THE SEAGULL, directed by someone who, to Ella’s distress, cast someone prettier as Nina, with the role of Masha going to the more "interesting" Ella. David, who insists Ella should have played Nina, rants with astonishing rancor about the critics, trying to bolster the highly competitive Ella’s confidence and dismiss any possible negativity her reviews may engender; his fiery slash and burn remarks (peppered with extreme vulgarity and homophobic slurs) may make some reviewers consider the implications of what they write, and how seriously they’re often taken by theatre artists, whether neophytes or veterans.

David, despite his success (including a Pulitzer, two Tonys, and an Oscar nomination), is a loud, ranting, potbellied shlub, the son of Russian Jews, who grew up in Coney Island’s Sheepshead Bay. (See note below.) He’s also a major league substance abuser; as he and Ella talk, he smokes incessantly, downs one glass of wine after another, sucks weed on a bong, and shovels coke up his snout. Nor is Ella a slacker in this neighborhood; like father, like daughter.

But, for all David’s passive-aggressive advice—including his insistence that Ella can best serve her career by writing a play she can star in—the cruelly aggressive part of his personality, partly fueled by the crap he’s drinking, smoking, and snorting, drives him, in the end, to say things that create an unbridgeable chasm between him and his offspring; until then, she’s been so frightfully, even neurotically helpless and hungry for love that if she were a puppy she’d have wagged her tail off in her efforts to agree with every shockingly brutal thing her father says.

After this impasse, there’s a brief blackout as the set (marvelously designed by Mark Wendland and  beautifully lit by Ben Stanton) is altered to create a fascinating statement on fiction and reality; what we see when the lights come up, which takes place five years later, is essentially the same as before, but sufficiently deconstructed to reveal it as scenery for the one-woman play Ella has written about her life and in which she plays 12 characters. David, you see, had insisted that his success stemmed from his ability to use his life experiences in his plays; again, like father, like daughter. In a brilliantly conceived sequence as she’s being interviewed on her phone while being constantly interrupted by calls from others, Ella reveals how similarly monstrous she’s become, which plays out fully when David, whom she's not seen in all this time, shows up to congratulate her.

There’s a lot of vitriolic (and often really humorous) inside stuff here about the pitfalls of a life in the theatre that folks in the profession will relish (when they’re not cringing), even though the major names mentioned—with a sampling of actual ones thrown in to heighten the tone of veracity—are fictional. What’s really at stake, though, is the emotionally catastrophic relationship between father and daughter. Theirs, in fact, is a threateningly incestuous connection with sadomasochistic overtones, including the chilling pleasure they take in digging blackheads out of each other's skin. Ms. Feiffer is cooking with TNT, mixing so much equal quantities of love and hate, that you just know something’s going to blow sky high.

While both characters are drawn with unpleasant characteristics, Ms. Feiffer’s depiction of David —from whom Ella is desperately seeking both approval and advice—is so corrosively nasty (when he’s not being helpfully supportive) that you can’t help but wonder just how much of a drame à clef she’s written. Ms. Feiffer even includes a potentially controversial exchange about using such reality, noting that what's important is not how closely something is to its source but what its emotional effect is when performed. 

When David exhorts Ella to write a play, he insists she avoid doing what’s safe. So, even if Jules Feiffer is nothing at all like this egotistic son of a bitch, just the idea of writing a play about a situation that many will suspect reflects reality (even if exaggerated), and doing it with such devastating yet spellbinding cruelty, is about as risky a way to write a play as any. Eugene O'Neill, you may recall, insisted that 25 years pass before LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT be produced. 

Trip Cullman’s direction pulls no punches in its excoriation of Ella and David, yet manages at the same time to find an underlying strain of sensitivity and vulnerability in each. Although I think it’s possible to rein in the hyped-up Ella a bit in the first scene, when her brief, enthusiastic responses to David’s fulminations are too insistently frantic, she nonetheless fills her every moment with intensity and depth. In scene one, she’s dressed in everyday grunge, her hair in a ponytail; in the final scene, she’s a knockout, her hair blown out and her considerable curves encased in a tight, red, minidress (costumes by Jessica Pabst), but her emotional life remains boldly honest if extreme. As David, Reed Birney, one of the New York stage’s treasures, may not be what some would consider perfect casting as someone who wears his upbringing like a second skin (think Matthau-Gould-Dreyfuss-Stiller), but this always fearless, nuanced, and insightful actor somehow manages to transform himself so effectively that actors all over town will surely rush to the Atlantic just to watch how a master craftsman does his job. 

Note: One of this play's good laughs comes as David is enumerating his awards. When he mentions "Academy Award," Ella interjects "nomination," which riles him so much he turns on his daughter, who insists she meant it in a positive way. "What are you, a fucking fact checker?" he yells. At the risk of being called the same thing, I cautiously venture to point out that David declares at one point that when he was a teenager in the 1950s and living at Coney Island and Avenue Z in Sheepshead Bay, he went to Times Square by hopping the N train at Flatbush Avenue. This, however, isn't possible from Sheepshead Bay. Also, there was no N train until 1961; before that it was the BMT Sea Beach Line or Sea Beach Express. There's also a reference to a bus route number that didn't exist when David was a boy. Now to cover my ears. 

Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th Street, NYC
Through February 15