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A CurtainUp Review
I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard

Well not a lot of people have the balls to say this, but I’ve always said it -- I said it in my memoirs and I said it in that thing I wrote for the New Yorker (which they butchered, but still), and I said it to Charlie Rose, and I’ll say it to you, now -- I always knew I was gonna be famous.—David
I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard
Reed Birney & Betty Gilpin (Photo: Ahron Foster)
In Halley Feiffer's I'm Going to Pray For You So Hard a famous playwright (Reed Birney) and his actress daughter (Betty Gilpin) are sitting around the kitchen table of his Manhattan apartment awaiting the opening night reviews of a play she's appearing in. Sound like a scaled down backstage version of Broadway's big hit It's Only a Play? ? Better park any such expectations at the door of Atlantic Theater's Stage II where this two-hander having its world premiere. What it sounds like and what it is are as different as ying frm yang, an oil portrait and a mobile pho picture.

Though Mr. Birney's potent portrait of the volatile supportive father indeed has its funny moments, I'm Going to Pray For You So Hard most of the 90 minutes are more harrowing than hilarious. Not at all a bad thing, unless you're strictly interested in light entertainment. Feiffer has written a chillingly complex drama about the way familial patterns of dysfunction tend to repeat themselves. Given the intensely emotional performances, this is one of the more 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 literally here. 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 it's effect on his career and his relationship with his daughter.

Birney overshadows Gilpin who is probably best known as Dr. Carrie Roman in Showtime's Nurse Jackie. Yry her Ella is far more than a sounding board for what at first seems like an only occasionally interrupted monologue for David. She nails the giddiness and insecurity of the 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, as much as what's said, is revelatory. Her look of a frightened deer caught in the glare of a car headlight and his mood shift when she doesn't just nod in agreement with his every word is riveting to watch. And, not to spoil any surprises, the longer first scene is a pitch perfect prelude, to the devastating second scene five years later.

Feiffer several times uses Estrogen's "nothing to be done" in Waiting for Godot several times to pave the way for the inevitable explosion of what starts out as an evening in which a father support and allelviate his daughter deal with the tension of learning 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 prompt a wonderfully relaxed moment that has both him and Emma 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 many glasses, as well as less acceptable relaxants.

The long title is explained during David's recollection of his reaction to people who disappoint his expectations. When his first theatrical mentor reacts counter to David's low opinion of a performance he calls him a traitor and declares "Im gonna pray for you sohard 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 instead of praying for huzzahs from the critics she should pity and pray for them.

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. --HIS FATHER USED A BELT-- BIRNEY USES HIS MOUTH w == Te constant bashing ashtray and stuff in that trash basket-- can't recall a prop so effectively used. the F word all over the place what passes as praise and support is beyond passive agressive but closer to abuse greater than anything physical And the way he pushes her into drinking and drugging is over casual cruelty David crosses to a cupboard. DAVID You’ve gotta know when it’s time to stop. David opens the cupboard and retrieves a small bong. Carries it over to the table. Sits down. He lights it. He inhales. DAVID The only job I’d ever had was in a cat food factory! Seventeen years old, a straight-D student, raised by a Russian widower who only wanted a son who would -- (as his father; Russian accent) -- “make him proud” -- ELLA (empathetic) Oh, Dad.... DAVID (as his father; Russian accent) “A real American boy” -- (dropping the accent) -- who could play catch with his old man like the other kids on the block, and study hard and get good grades, and go to college! Be a doctor, be a lawyer, be a goddamn dental hygienist, just as long as he wasn’t an artist. ELLA (heart breaking with compassion) Oh, Daddy...! Oh, Dad.... Reed Birney Interview
I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard Halley Feiffer
Directed by Trip Cullman
Cast: Reed Birney (David) and Betty Gilpin (Ella)
Scenery: Mark Wendland
Costumes: Jessica Pabst
Lighting: Ben Stanton
Sound: Daniel Kluger
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Fight consultant: J. David Brinner
Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W 16th St.
From 1/07/15; opening 1/20/15; closing 2/15/15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/17/15 press matinee
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