jugularAside from the fact that Halley Feiffer could be writing about herself and her famous father, Jules Feiffer, the new play “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” is funny, scary, and completely over the top in its own right.
“I’m Gonna Pray,” which opened Tuesday at Atlantic Stage 2 in New York, doesn’t need the Feiffer backstory to be enjoyed, although it is a pleasure in the play’s first few minutes to eavesdrop on what a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright-screenwriter (she leaves out the cartoonist part) might say to his not terribly successful actress-daughter as they’re about to read a review of her performance as Masha in an Off Broadway revival of “The Seagull.”
Masha, as the characters David (Reed Birney) and Ella (Betty Gilpin) are well aware, is not Nina, the coveted ingénue role that Ella desperately wanted to play because her father even more desperately wanted her to play it. David thinks a big role like Nina could make his daughter a star, make her famous, famous like him, which is crucial because fame is the only way to achieve eternity, in Dad’s opinion.
And what a dad he is!
Halley Feiffer has written a success-at-all-costs father who makes that instructor-conductor character in “Whiplash” come off like a one-note harpy. Where J. K. Simmons’s Fletcher in “Whiplash” is never anything but strident, Birney’s David is alternately cutting and loving and a helluva lot funnier, especially in his put-downs of directors, critics, actors, critics, writers, critics, and audiences, but mostly critics.
To go Hollywood for a moment here, “I’m Gonna Pray” can be described as “Whiplash” meets “The Heiress,” only Feiffer’s father isn’t in any way dismissive of his daughter. He’s relentlessly prodding, needling, always pushing for her to do better, and if she can’t get a starring role, then she should write, direct, and star in her own play, goddammit, even though Ella has no ambition to write or direct.
As with the Goetz play “The Heiress,” the daughter becomes her father in a closing scene. Feiffer’s transformation of Ella, however, is so harrowing in its bold mix of bathos, comedy, and cruel comeuppance that theatergoers will either love it or hate it. This writer goes straight for the jugular through the heart.
She’s blessed in her ballsy approach with Trip Cullman, who directs Gilpin and Birney to give oversized performances that perfectly match the text. Last season Birney was equally riveting as a fascist transvestite in “Casa Valentina.” No one is better at playing complicated bastards than Birney. Gilpin appears a touch overwrought in the play’s opening moments, then we understand why. With this father, she’s lucky to be standing at the beginning of the play. At the end, she’s still standing.