BritishTheatre

Published on

January 21, 2015

REVIEW: I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard, Atlantic Theatre Company ✭✭✭✭

By

stephencollins

I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard at Atlantic Theatre Company

Photo: Ahron R Foster I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard

Atlantic Theatre Company

11 January 2015

4 Stars

They are, to say the least, an unusual father and daughter. He is a Tony Award winning and Academy Award nominated writer, angry at pretty much every aspect of his life. She is his daughter, an actress, currently starring on Broadway in a revival of The Seagull and awaiting the first night reviews. He is vitriolic, acidic and vile about anything associated with the theatre - the directors, the critics, other actors. He spews forth venomous and profane epithets that might have been the work of the offspring of Oscar Wilde and the possessed Linda Blair character from The Exorcist.

That the father is capable of serious violence is never in doubt. He vents his anger in different ways - long, baleful stares that would give Medusa a run for her money, thumping the sturdy ashtray against the inside of the rubbish bin to pound away tension, great gulps of white wine from glasses into which ice cubes are dropped like atomic bombs, deep inhalations of weed or rambunctious snorting of cocaine. He exceeds at excess, in language, deed and manipulative calculation.

The daughter is a shattered mess; a tangled web of hope, desperation and possibility, the inevitable result of decades of being treated like Princess Who Must Succeed and a squashed cabbage leaf - the stricken, trapped Eliza to her father's malicious and disturbed Higgins. The ultimate result of the determined obsession of a vain, powerful Mr Worthington.

When the reviews come in for her performance in The Seagull, both father and daughter are altered forever. How this plays out is the backbone of Halley Feiffer's new play, I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard, now in previews before its world premiere, off Broadway, at Atlantic Theatre Company directed by Trip Cullman.

Although there are a lot of genuine laughs, many at the expense of theatre critics (subject matter that keeps on giving), this is not a comedy. It is squid ink dark, intense, uncomfortable theatre. On a surface level, it seems about theatre, writing for theatre, acting, and the pain and joy there to be had. It is easy then to think Feiffer is some theatrical relative of Harvey Fierstein or Terrence McNally - but she is nothing of the kind.

No. Feiffer is a new voice, happy to play at the extremities of form and convention. The first scene seems conventional enough: the interior of a home, an eat-in kitchen bench, all realistically rendered, complete with wallpaper and framed playbills of the father's past triumphs. Mark Wendland's set is quite perfect, evoking a sense of Arthur Miller and Edward Albee.

The second scene is, however, something very different. Both a real space, a black-box theatre, and, perhaps, the interior of the daughter's fragmenting mind. The ambiguity about what you are watching is contrasted against the visceral unravelling of the mind of the actress/writer. Or are we watching her play as it is performed? Or are we watching the aftermath of the triumphant opening night of her play? In any event, and quite curiously, it does not matter. Feiffer's writing in this scene is remarkable - confronting and shattering.

Perhaps more than anything else, I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard, is the ultimate theatrical proof of Sondheim's wisdom in the Into The Woods hit, Children Will Listen. And learn.

The father learns from his rejection by his immigrant father and the encouragement of his adopted theatrical mentor. His brutal childhood never leaves him, informs his award-winning writing and the way he seeks to control his daughter.

For her part, the daughter knows all about the father's history (she has been lectured for a lifetime) and is desperate to please him, to give him something familial about which to be proud. But, in her desperate - and ultimately futile - rush to please, assuage and placate her parent, she sets about her own self-destruction. It is devastating to watch.

In the first scene, Betty Gilpin is unimpressive as the daughter, Ella. There is an hysterical implausibility to her performance which is disappointing - and inexplicable, given that her work in the second scene is intensely focussed and both exciting and scary in equal measure. There is good reason for her work in the second scene - the spotlight moves firmly from her father to her, and Gilpin takes every chance offered in the circumstances.

But the first scene calls for just as much skill, especially if there is to be a truthful through-line for the character. Gilpin's turn involves too many tears and sobs - the steely character in the second scene needs to be glimpsed more carefully in the first, otherwise the power of the piece is diminished. It is hard to believe that a victim of domestic abuse such as that Gilpin creates in the first scene would endure as much as Gilpin's Ella does or, if she did, that she would take the brave step Gilpin's Ella eventually takes.

The first scene affords the actress a chance to choose the foundations for what comes in the second scene. At the moment, those choices are not the wisest and Gilpin does not have the sympathy of the audience as the first scene ends. Still, Gilpin is quite sensational in the second scene and demonstrates an assuredness and a clarity of focus which makes her Ella sparkle like champagne laced with cyanide.

But the play belongs to Reed Birney, who is magnificent as Ella's ghastly, vicious father, David. It's a huge beast of a role, as great as any of the major father characters in Williams, O'Neill or Albee. Birney takes every moment Feiffer's script offers, and with aplomb and energy, wrings bitter fury and incandescent rage out of every phrase. He presents a detailed portrait of domestic violence of the kind that does not result in physical strikes or bruises.

He spits and snarls at his daughter, belittling her and encouraging her in turns. He laughs with and then at her, pushes her to the brink of breakdown and then gives her a hand out of the pit of blackness he has created. His eyes are constantly alive, probing, rolling or narrowing as the moment requires. Birney uses his body remarkably too - showing a man past his prime and awash with self-indulgence.

He is a master with his voice too. He can throw away comic lines to great effect and, on a pinhead, can turn a dulcet tone into a raging torrent of unforgiving venom. Without difficulty, Birney makes clear the pain and misery which has defined him and the need to glow with success that has sustained him, burnt him out.

He conveys the complete wrongheadedness of David effortlessly too. He dismisses his daughter's role of Masha in The Seagull as though it is nothing, insisting that she should have been the ingénue, Nina, the "star" part. Masha, of course, is a great part in the Chekov play and many great actresses have played it. And Masha is loved by the person she doesn't love and rejected by the person she does love: given what happens in Feiffer's play, this is no coincidence.

But while there is so much to admire in the horrendous bull of a man Birney creates so clearly in the first scene, it is his appearance in the second scene which demonstrates his versatility and range as an actor. 5 years has passed and those years have not been kind to David. Birney is superb in this final, fragile confrontation with his daughter.

The most astonishing thing of all, however, is what Birney does as the first scene concludes. Despite superbly essaying a monstrous, hateful and heartless man, who can abandon anyone and anything on a whim, on a false note of assumed sleight, Birney unravels David in the final solitary moments, revealing the raw centre of this lost, lonely and unlovable creature. It should have been impossible, given the atrocities he has unleashed on Ella during the preceding sequence, for any sympathy to be felt for David.

Yet, miraculously, Birney makes that happen. It is as triumphant and exhilarating a performance as any I have ever seen on a stage anywhere in the world.

Trip Cullman's direction is astute and clear. The intimacy that the small space at the Atlantic Theater Company's Black Box theatre contributes greatly to the sense of palpable horror that engulfs the audience as the narrative unfolds. The physical violence and intimacy is both disturbing and frightening, but it is a testament to Cullman's good instincts that most of the audience were startled into appalled silence rather than laughing at unrealistic scenarios.

This is an excellent new play and one that deserves to have worldwide success. Not many playwrights have turned their attention to the sorts of father/daughter relationships which are corrosive and co-dependant. Feiffer has created something new, challenging and vibrant - exactly the kind of play David exhorts Ella to write in I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard.

As to that title...well, you will have to see for yourself.

I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard runs at The Atlantic Theatre Company until 15 February 2015.

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ABOUT BRITISHTHEATRE

BritishTheatre.com
Opening Night Media Ltd
3rd Floor, 80 St. Martin’s Lane
Covent Garden
London WC2N 4AA

The British Theatre website has been established to celebrate the rich and diverse theatrical culture of the United Kingdom.  Our ethos revolves around encouraging and nurturing the performing arts in all its forms. The spirit of theatre is very much alive and the British Theatre website is at the forefront of delivering news and information to audiences and enthusiasts everywhere. Our team of theatre journalists and reviewers are working hard to cover productions and news.


We are constantly developing the site and are always open to receiving feedback from our readers. Join our mailing list to be kept informed of all the latest news that is of interest to you..