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First Nighter: Halley Feiffer's 'I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard' Needs More Prayer

Although we may loathe the very suggestion, it's undoubtedly true that to some extent, we all eventually become our parents. Halley Feiffer believes we do to the most extreme extent.
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Although we may loathe the very suggestion, it's undoubtedly true that to some extent, we all eventually become our parents. Halley Feiffer believes we do to the most extreme extent. She demonstrates as much and more in her highly dramatic, highly theatrical, highly-problematic-bordering-on-laughable I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, at Atlantic Theater Company 2.

As the first of the 90-minute, intermissionless two scenes starts -- following what might be a volatile Buddy Rich drum break that sound designer Daniel Kruger found -- dissolute, 50-ish David (Reed Birney) is in mid-rant to his enthralled 20-ish, actor daughter Ella (Betty Gilpin). It quickly comes into focus that he's an embittered though acclaimed playwright decrying critics in as scatological and venomous a diatribe as he can muster.

The reason for his lengthy tirade is his intention to soften any blows Ella, who's just opened as Masha in an off-Broadway take on Anton Chekhov's Seagull, might suffer when the reviews appear. As the implication becomes increasingly obvious that smoking-and-drinking David may be venting to strengthen Ella's resolve in the face of any disappointment, he's also deliberately attempting to keep her intimidated. Along his rampaging way, he exhibits ugly behavior ultimately rises to the intolerably abusive.

But before going on about the action of the dark dramedy, I'll note that some of Feiffer's writing of David is mesmerizingly effective, and Birney's playing of the querulous man is ultra-dynamic. One of Manhattan theater's busiest actors, Reed is giving his best performance to date, and that's saying something.

(There's irony here: While David is mercilessly chewing out critics and declaring their best reviews for actors inevitably go to the worst ones in the ensemble, it's got to be crossing Birney's mind that he's a critics' darling while consistently representing the total opposite of any ensemble's weak link.)

Okay, back to the plot. After talking about being thrown at 17 out of his father's house, David reaches a boiling point where he drives Ella from their home. (Only the cramped kitchen of the house is shown, as designed by Mark Wendland designed with literal and figurative claustrophobia in mind.) Hardly the confident, incisive man he's been pretending to be, David is a wasted mess. When the attenuated sequence ends, he's openly exhibiting how lost and ultimately broken he is.

There's a black-out and another Buddy-Rich-like ear-assaulting drum roll as the second scene bursts forth. It's five years later and an hour or so after Ella has opened -- having followed David's earlier advice -- in a solo play of her devising. She's let her blond hair flow and is sexy as hell in a form-hugging red dress costumer Jessica Pabst found.

Since Wendland's kitchen remains on view but is now centered in a black-box theater surrounding, the message is that Ella has composed an autobiographical piece the impending critical reception of which has her so wrought up that she's smoking, drinking and reaming out various cellphone callers in the same tones and same vulgar language David used on her. At one point, she even bangs an ashtray on the inside of a kitchen trashcan in the same way David did several times earlier.

So yes, Ella has become her father -- and too thoroughly predictably, if you ask me. She has internalized him so that when he arrives unannounced to congratulate her on the job she's done (he's had a stroke and is only able to communicate in a feeble singsong), she can't accept him. The psychological explanation, as Feiffer conjures it, is that she's gotten where she is by hewing to her father's early hard-nosed urgings. Now she can't discard them for fear of losing her hold on the stardom she's sought and that's in reach at last.

Is the psychological component accurate? Does Ella realize her career-seeking missteps? Does she relent? Does she end scene two as David ended scene one? Expect no answers here, although Feiffer's writing is so transparent, no answers need be supplied. Any theatergoer for whom this isn't a first-time experience already knows what they are.

Also, any theatergoer for whom this isn't a first-time experience is likely to know -- or have read somewhere recently -- that just as Ella is an actress who becomes a dramatist, Feiffer herself is an actress who's become a dramatist. Also not especially unknown -- and reported again recently -- is that just as Ella has a famous father, Feiffer has one: Jules Feiffer, whose graphic novel Kill My Mother was recently released. (Hmm, is there a generational connection here about getting back at parents?)

So anyone knowing anything about the younger Feiffer could think that Feiffer's play is autobiographical. Anyone could definitely begin to think as much after noticing that the name "Ella" is included but backwards in the name "Halley."

What gives? Is the emotionally heightened I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard a therapeutic gesture? A desperate therapeutic gesture? Or is it Feiffer's invitation sent spectators considering themselves show-biz knowledgeable to regard the play as truly autobiographical so Feiffer can laugh at them for taking the bait and concluding this is her life rather than a spin on what her life might have been had her actual father-daughter relationship gone awfully wrong?

Okay,, enough of that. In addition to handing Reed a role for which he'll be remembered, Feiffer has given lookalike Gilpin (her father? Actor Jack Gilpin) a tour de force as well. She overdoes the scene-one sycophancy, which is as much director Trip Cullman's problem as hers, but she reaches Reed's levels in the scene-two replication of David's behavioral extravagances.

Her achievement there is also Cullman's and he's done quite well with a script that curiously encourages the audience to take the actors seriously while it discourages them from completely believing in the play.