Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by WHO IS SHE.
The idea of the child becoming the parent is a well-worn trope of theatre. One need look no further than Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, name-checked in Halley Feiffer’s I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, now playing at the Den Theatre in a First Floor Theatre production. Feiffer, herself the actress daughter of playwright Jules Feiffer, here gives us a two-hander in which the father-daughter relationship is so caustic and awkward that, despite some strong acting by both principles and solid direction by Cole Von Glahn, it is frankly difficult to watch.
The play’s first segment is a long monologue by Tim Kidwell as David, an award-winning playwright who is as full of opinions as he is full of himself. The monologue, a series of diatribes against various elements of the theatre community, is punctuated only by the interjections of Amanda Caryl Fink as his insecure actress daughter Ella, who desperately desires to be the focus of her famous father’s love and affection but has to settle for being the audience of one for his explosive temper and homophobic ragings. Both Kidwell and Fink throw themselves into these characters wholeheartedly and enthusiastically, as David savages first critics (they are waiting for reviews of Ella’s performance in an off-Broadway revival of The Seagull) and then her director, who had the temerity to cast someone other than his daughter as Nina, the lead. Ella can hardly get a word in edgewise and, when she succeeds, David’s displeasure at her interruptions is clear and ugly.
No wonder Ella so eagerly partakes both in the wine they are both consuming far too quickly and in the pot and cocaine her father eventually brings out to alter the dynamic of the conversation. A vile man and an awful father, he sits there doing drugs with his daughter after bluntly accosting her both on her sexuality (telling her that the only reason a director is interested in any actress is because he wants to have sex with her) and her looks (saying that she isn’t pretty enough to have gotten Nina). If Ella indicates any objection to his ravings, he shrugs it off as a “joke,” though there is nothing in the play to indicate he even has a sense of humor. Kidwell is strong as this larger than life blowhard of a man, whose love for his daughter (manifested in a couple of cringeworthy scenes where she sits in his lap) is secondary (at least) to his own ego. Truly, it isn’t until a coda taking place several years later—which is way too late—that we see any reason at all to have sympathy for this man.
For her part, Fink mostly sits behind the table in the first part of the play, a bit of blocking that suggests her relative importance to her father’s world. She watches him enthusiastically, listening to old stories she has heard before as if they were brand new. Her determined desire to be on the receiving end of love David may not even be capable of giving anymore leads her into a moment of reckoning when, all too abruptly, Feiffer has everything change between them. In the coda, in which she finally gets her own chance to shine, Fink shows how much this character has changed over the years, both becoming more independent and, sadly and inevitably, more like her father. Here Feiffer seriously overplays her hand, putting the same lines into Ella’s mouth that once came out of David’s. Her intention is clear: the father became who he is because of an abusive relationship between him and his father, and the same has happened to Ella. But it ends up mostly being just repetitive.
I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard is very well-acted and directed and wants to make a provocative statement about generational relationships, but its major problem is that it tries too hard. Feiffer has crafted a play that calls on Kidwell to do a lot of ranting and raving but doesn’t really create any dramatic tension until halfway through the coda, when David and Ella have one final scene together. Here the play shows what it might have been if its playwright had allowed the characters more real interaction and conversation instead of writing in monologues.
I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is a First Floor Theatre production now playing at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, through May 18. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.