Endless plays have been written about the brittle matriarch; the woman whose vulnerability intertwines with a vitriolic instability. Many, many playwrights, it seems, struggle with the mother-child relationship, or perhaps more accurately, the mother-son relationship. But as the work of female playwrights reaches more stages, it follows that new dynamics would surface. In the case of Halley Feiffer's two-person play, I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, now onstage at Kitchen Dog Theater, it's the thorny relationship of an adult daughter and her aging, narcissistic father.
This unsettling portrait of a daughter desperate for her father's pride, and a father equally interested in repeating the ways in which he is proud of himself, sends the audience deep into a drug and alcohol bender, as the two debate the merits of reading reviews of the latest performance by Ella (Jenny Ledel) as a supporting character in an Off-Broadway production of The Seagull. David (Barry Nash) is a famous playwright with strong opinions about critics, and, well, everything else. The first act of the play waffles between egotistical reminiscence and vicious tirades against anyone in theater who disregards his talents, or those of his offspring. He flings insults faster than he can throw back innumerable glasses of wine, spurred on by Ella's wide-eyed earnestness, and her overt assurances of unfettered attention. Most of Ella's lines in the play's first hour are yeahs and uh huhs and I love you, Daddys, until finally, fed up, she walks out.
If the play's dysfunction punishes the audience into cringe-ridden laughter in the first act, fast forward about 10 years. Ella's no longer speaking to her father and her acting career appears to be taking off, as she's backstage after the one-woman show she wrote — a suggestion David pressed upon her. Again, she awaits the review. Only this time she's not the supporting character. In the final moments of the play, David re-emerges, lucky to be alive and ready to make amends, in a scene that first wrenches your heart and then crushes your soul. Just when it appears Feiffer is going to allow the characters a moment of catharsis, it's as if she soaks the script in wine and lights it on fire. There's no easy way out of this play.
There's no way around how much this bone-rattling play fucks up its audience. An impossibly good performance by Nash sends David from a cantankerous, Larry David-like asshole into a vulnerable man attempting to climb up from rock bottom. Ledel shifts easily from a whiny, approval-seeking daughter into a black-hearted resemblance of the man we met in the first act. Like father, like daughter, you might say. In a play about two lives constructed around theater; around narrative; around performance and performed actions, the set design by Clare Floyd Devries accentuates the smallness of the room in which they share the first act's drunkenness, expanding in the second act to the dark margins of the theater's black box.
As much as I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard is grounded in extremes, Feiffer's script ultimately embraces themes in the gray area. Thanks to Lee Trull's taut direction, the play unravels into a gut punch of an ending (it has that in common with last year's play Belleville by Amy Herzog at Second Thought Theatre, also directed by Trull and starring Ledel). If you consider yourself a serious theatergoer by any measure, for God's sake, don't miss it. But in a cruel irony for a play about two people crippled by ego and alcohol, the first words uttered by many audience members leaving the theater opening night were, "I need a drink."
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I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard continues through March 12 at Kitchen Dog Theater, currently performing at The Green Zone (161 Riveredge Drive). Tickets start at $15 at kitchendogtheater.org.