In Halley Feiffer’s I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, two damaged egos go at it, though (initially, at least) it’s hardly a fair match. Ella Berryman (played by Betty Gilpin), a young actress, anxiously awaits the New York Times’ review of her off-Broadway debut in The Seagull. It’s a make-or-break moment for Ella, and she’s pretty much a pulsating cluster of raw nerves.
You’d think her playwright father, David (Reed Birney), with whom she waits it out, would offer some compassion, along with the wine he’s liberally pouring. Instead, David talks about David – or more specifically, about the ways in which his career has been a minefield of disappointments (this despite a Pulitzer and other successes). For the schlubby, disheveled David Berryman, it appears a lifetime in the theater has robbed him of every shred of humanity and potency – he’s a bitter shell of a man, and barely even that. (The hoarse, New York-inflected voice Birney uses here sounds eerily like The Simpson’s Selma Bouvier.)
Does David intend his comments to be some form of tough love for Ella – or is it all deliberate cruelty? The issue is left intriguingly unresolved in Feiffer’s play, but there’s no doubt that the net result is devastation for both of them. That, ultimately, Ella achieves some form of validation is of little comfort – to her, or the audience.
There is some marvelously droll writing in I’m Gonna Pray for You. Feiffer’s sense of theater-dish feels steeped in real-life experience (as it ought to – she’s the daughter of celebrated cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer), and it’s often as funny as it is scabrous. In a particularly good bit, we discover that David seems to have a habit of misjudging opportunities – rejecting Arthur Miller as a hack, he instead unwisely hitched his star to another playwright.
Whether this pitch-black harangue adds up to a satisfying play is, I think, an open question. For me, 90 minutes of it is more than enough, and the second-scene flip – both more grotesque and more maudlin than what’s come before – is overkill. I also think it feels like sour grapes – surely it’s unearned cynicism for a young writer, whose career path has already been filled with opportunities (including this fine production) to view the glass as bone-dry.
But at very least, I’m Gonna Pray for You is an extraordinary showcase for two great actors, seen here at the top of their game. Birney, who characteristically plays buttoned-up roles, gets a chance to let loose, and he’s hair-raising. I’ve been fascinated with Betty Gilpin since seeing her in Nurse Jackie – she’s such a distinctive and unusual mix of qualities: part sunny ingenue, part quirky comedienne, but always with something raw and off-center in the mix. I can’t imagine a role that lets her display her many facets more completely and compellingly than this one. Trip Cullman’s direction and Mark Wendland’s design are superb.
For me – and, I imagine, many others – that is reason enough to see the show. The theater may be, as Feiffer suggests, a blood sport – but it does have its thrills.