Risk-taking Dallas company's vicious new play doesn't quite answer our prayers
The two characters of I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard swill tepid Chardonnay while chewing the fat, cutting each other to the bone with their barbs.
Halley Feiffer's incendiary new play, receiving its second-ever professional production courtesy of Kitchen Dog Theater, is as blunt and provocative as its title. Unfortunately it's still very rough around the edges, relying on its performers to wring themselves out in order for the play to amass any sort of heft.
I first saw this show at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut two summers ago, and while I was (and still am) forbidden to write about that particular experience, I will say that I went into this mounting hoping for the necessary smoothing of an in-progress workshop production to have been done.
Not so. It's still a brash, barely concealed rendering of Feiffer and her famous father, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, that is mostly shock and hardly any substance. Onstage the family is redrawn as Ella, an aspiring actress, and David, her cantankerous playwright dad.
Without the knowledge of Feiffer's tumultuous relationship with her real-life father, that dimension disappears, and the audience is left to contend with only what it presented to them under the stage lights. Kudos to set designer Clare Floyd DeVries though, who hangs a cartoon of Nash amid his clutter as a nod to Jules.
Lee Trull tries his darndest to draw more from the play than is there. As Ella, Jenny Ledel is a twitchy young woman who's eager to please, wound tight enough already without the coke and alcohol that David produces throughout their wine-soaked evening in his New York apartment. She's appearing as Masha (not Nina, David continually reminds her) in The Seagull Off-Broadway, and has holed herself up with him to await the New York Times' review.
The play's title refers not to Ella or David, but to the critics David dismisses as needy and stupid. He's had a lifetime of being judged by others, which he colorfully regales to Ella when he's not reminding her of her "interesting" looks and wannabe talent.
Barry Nash relishes David's nastiness, landing Feiffer's dialogue when it's cutting and pulling it along when it's dull. Ledel is relegated to self-conscious parrot for the first act, chirping "yes, yes!" and "ok! ok!" in response to her father's tales and proclamations. It's what slips out between words, in Ledel's eyes and through her body language — that of a kicked puppy — that makes Ella anything worth watching.
In the second act, a nifty scene change and some unsettling lighting work by Aaron Johansen brings the play practically into our laps. Ledel and Nash continue giving their all, even though it feels like Feiffer gave up, relying on retreads to lead her two characters to a puzzling end. Perhaps this show still needs more time to grow up.
Kitchen Dog Theater's production of I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard runs through March 12.