Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 1, $20-$45
Theater critics are taking quite a beating these days. In Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, F. Murray Abraham portrays a snarky critic who wants to feel included at an opening-night part for a new Broadway show. In Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar-nominated Birdman, Lindsay Duncan plays a vicious New York Times critic who can’t wait to eviscerate a former Hollywood star’s (Michael Keaton) big debut on the Great White Way. And now in Halley Feiffer’s I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, a playwright father (Reed Birney) and his actor daughter (Betty Gilpin) skewer critics right from the start. “They are a sick cadre of pathetic, sniveling, tiny men with micropenises and no imaginations who write out of their asses and who love to tear you down because in truth they know that you are doing exactly what they could never do — that you are doing the only thing they have ever wanted to do — and they are fucking jealous,” David, winner of a Pulitzer and two Tonys for such plays as Gavalt! and Four Questions, lashes out. “You know that, don’t you? How jealous they are? They’re boiling with envy. They want a piece of you. They want in. They wanna get inside you! They wanna climb right in!” That mini-soliloquy, which of course contains more than a morsel of truth, is part of a kind of vitriolic halftime locker-room pep talk David is giving to Ella, who has been passed over for the role of Nina in The Seagull, losing out to a sexy ingénue who, David argues, uses her assets to get what she wants. (Ellas is cast as Masha instead.) Smoking and drinking with a passion, David rips apart theater as a whole, not just critics, barely leaving room for Ella to sycophantically scream back at him such words of shock and agreement (and ecstasy) as “Whoa!” “Wow!” “Right!” “Yes!” and “Oh god!” It’s not a pleasant conversation to listen in on — and one can only hope it’s not based on fact, as Feiffer is an actress (The House of Blue Leaves, The Substance of Fire) as well as a playwright (How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them) and the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer.
I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard takes place on Mark Wendland’s cluttered Upper West Side apartment set, which runs three rooms deep instead of across, creating a narrow, claustrophobic space that barely contains the fiery emotions streaming out of David and Ella. The second scene is far shorter than the first, almost more of a coda, taking place on the floor instead of the stage, as the set is now the black box theater itself, a transition that is wholly successful. But Birney (Casa Valentina, Circle Mirror Transformations), one of New York’s most deservedly busiest actors — he’s also starring in Feiffer and Ryan Spahn’s upcoming web series What’s Your Emergency? — and Gilpin (Heartless, Nurse Jackie) make for a rather odd couple, forming an unsettling and hard-to-believe father-daughter dynamic that is often difficult to watch. But then Feiffer and director Trip Cullman (Punk Rock, Murder Ballad) tear it all apart in a brash, brutal finale that is actually a disappointing cop-out. I’m Gonna Pray So Hard for You is a relentlessly nasty and bitter play, and although often that works, in this case, by the end, you’ll be praying for someone, anyone, to just lighten up.