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'I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard' - Engaging Father-Daughter Drama with a Twist

Betty Gilpin and Reed Birney in I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard.
(Photo: Ahron Foster)

Halley Feiffer’s new play I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, which opened last week at Atlantic’s Stage 2 in Chelsea, cannot be considered--by any stretch of the imagination--pleasant. That fact, however, shouldn’t deter theater lovers from seeking out a ticket. The piece also happens to be one of the most interesting and engaging productions to hit the stage in the past few months.

The drama, laced with biting humor, centers on David (Reed Birney), a much-honored and painfully acerbic playwright, and his daughter Ella (Betty Gilpin). As the play opens, they are spending a wine-, pot- and cocaine-fueled evening together. They are both eagerly awaiting the first reviews of a new off-Broadway production of Chekhov’s The Seagull in which she is playing Masha.

There’s a decided edge to their relationship and not just because they’re tense about what critics might be saying about the show. David’s overbearing, arrogant, and prone to debasing his daughter (both intentionally and not) as he regales her with stories of his rise to fame in the theater. They’re all clearly tales that she knows by heart, yet she eats them up with the eagerness of a little girl, egging him on all the while stroking his ego.

It’s a bracing ride for these two and theatergoers, particularly when David goes after his daughter or when his homophobia comes to the fore. (His first champion in the theater was a gay man.) After the reviews appear, things get even dicier for the pair.

Where Feiffer takes the play in its second half, I refuse to say. (And I don’t know if other critics have or not. I simply refuse to spoil the marvelous surprises that Feiffer’s play contains.)

Certainly nothing in director Trip Cullman’s tautly staged production signals the way in which the show will shift, but when it does, Cullman’s work (abetted by scenic designer Mark Wendlend whose design for David’s well-worn Upper West Side apartment is a realistic marvel) proves equally compelling.

Cullman has also helped Birney and Gilipin craft remarkably nuanced performances. During the first act of the play, it’s astonishing to watch Birney as he embraces every repugnant aspect of the character, even as he infuses each with a kind of perverse (and self-centered) love for Ella. Similarly, Gilpin delivers a spirited (bordering on the appropriately overbearing) turn while they wait for notices and David self-aggrandizes.

And when the play shifts Birney and Gilpin do too, to terrific and heartstring-pulling effect. What’s most remarkable about the actors’ work and Feiffer’s drama is that, after the show has ended, it’s difficult to put it or the questions it raises about victimization out of your mind.

---- Andy Propst

I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard plays at Atlantic’s Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street). For more information and tickets, visit atlantictheater.org.