I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, Finborough Theatre | reviews, news & interviews
I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, Finborough Theatre
I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, Finborough Theatre
Conflicts in a theatre family: sharp writing in a new American two-hander
In I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, Halley Feiffer has written a right curmudgeon of a central role. David is a successful playwright, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has no difficulty slotting himself directly into the great American drama tradition. He’s also such a testy individual that even being in the same room as him for very long is an endurance. This being theatre, it’s a test we have elected to take, and the result has much of the fascination of an ongoing car crash.
Adrian Lukis gives a compelling, bravura performance as a character who is not easy to like, but whose flexing, energetic diatribe – you can practically feel its muscles rippling – is hard to turn away from. His partner in this two-hander, daughter Ella (Jill Winternitz), doesn’t have that option. She’s clearly in awe of him, and the two of them are sitting up late at night in David’s Upper West Side kitchen waiting for the opening night reviews of Ella’s new show – a revolutionary Off Broadway Chekhov, in which Ella pointedly has not landed the lead – to come in.
It all provides rich material for monologue
I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard was itself a hit Off Broadway early in 2015, and its bones are steeped in theatre. David discovered the stage by bunking off school once a week to take in a show – he luxuriates in remembering how a top ticket in those days was just six dollars (his wages from a side job in a cat food factory). He estranged himself from his father in the process, but found a substitute in the figure of writer Milo Koplar, who clearly occupies a place in Broadway mythology close to real-life counterparts like O’Neill or Sondheim, references to whom pepper Feiffer’s script. The play’s title, appealingly for critics, riffs on how Koplar would respond to a bad review or (in a lovely anecdote here) to an actor who had gone seriously off-script: rather than any furious invective, just “I’m gonna pray for him”. It's shorthand for laceration.
It all provides rich material for monologue, and it’s one David has obviously been rehearsing over the years: when Ella inadvertently finishes a story she has clearly heard before, he’s incensed (the reaction when she reminds him that his Oscar was actually just a nomination is no warmer). Winternitz’s character has a sense of pronounced youth to her at first, as if she’s barely out of college – “naïve” is the word her father uses, at times almost a taunt.David, it seems, is very much intent on completing her education, creating her in his own image. “Be transgressive, upsetting” is the gist of what he’s teaching: avoid at all costs anything “safe”, or worse still the “hack”, or false. It’s not wholly original in itself, this doctrine that plays rather self-consciously on stereotypes of rebellion: no wonder that when David recalls his first meeting with his mentor Koplar, he comes up with the glorious phrase, “Ernest Hemingway meets Marlon Brando”.
More acutely, Feiffer’s world is one in which each new generation can establish itself only on the bones of its predecessor, through rejection, by painfully moving on: this is no environment in which the luxury of tradition can accrue, the present building on the past. (Feiffer is herself an actress, and also the daughter of Jules Feiffer, the renowned cartoonist and playwright; much to muse on there.)
I’m Gonna Pray’s main action – its audience with David, if you like – runs for almost 75 minutes, before Feiffer closes with a quarter-hour coda which jumps forward an unspecified number of years, and turns the tables completely. Winternitz’s Ella is unrecognisable, her open-faced innocence transformed into hard-nosed, cynical experience (David’s metamorphosis is no less absolute). She may have absorbed her father’s advice, but is now enswathed in a new tartness that has absorbed all his old cynicism. Listen out in that closing scene for some of the lines that Ella, now the accomplished performer in every sense, ponders over: lines, it seems, borrowed from an earlier generation, from another unreconciled rejection. Beneath it all, a terrifying fear of oblivion runs...
Just as, beneath a surface that can sometimes seem a little formulaic, I’m Gonna Pray hits home with a sense of primal instinct. Jake Smith’s direction allows the performances to flow, in Adrian Lukis’s case with virtuoso results. He practically chews the furniture. Luckily for Anna Reid’s set – it’s the first time I have seen the Finborough stage used in this alignment, and it works beautifully – not quite.
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