I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD: by Halley Feiffer
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 E. Broad St., RVA 23219
Performances: February 2-17, 2018
Ticket Prices: Tickets $35 – VIP Seating, $30 – General Admission, $20 – Senior / RVA Theatre Alliance, $10 – Student (with valid ID)
Info: (804) 505-0558 or theatrelabrva.org
Like many of the Acts of Faith Festival offerings, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is not intended for mere entertainment. It left Saturday night’s TheatreLAB at The Basement audience mentally battered and bruised and most in the audience sat in utter silence collecting themselves for more than a full minute at the end.
This provocative two-character play deals with the toxic father-daughter relationship of David (Alan Sader), a renowned playwright and his daughter Ella (Liz Earnest) and aspiring actress who alternately basks and languishes in her famous father’s success. The second installment of Artistic Director Deejay Gray’s “Taking Sides” project, Gray has staged the play in David’s living room that appears to have been snatched from New York and dropped into the middle of The Basement, with audience members sitting on two sides peering through the torn away walls. At some point we became unwilling voyeurs, sort of like having noisy neighbors in an apartment building. This feeling is reinforced by the opportunity to watch the viewers on the other side of the stage watching the action – and you. One woman even gasped aloud at a particularly egregious action by David. The intimacy of the setting amplifies whatever you might be feeling as you watch this story unfold.
There is no doubt that Ella loves her father. The way she kneels submissively before him with his refilled wine glass in her outstretched hands is profoundly disturbing, as is her constant need to apologize. David obviously has deep feelings for his only daughter, but it is a love tainted by a narcissistic and perhaps even psychopathic personality.
Gray decided to stage this 90-minutes without interruption play as a two-act play with an intermission after about an hour in. In the first act, Sader commands the stage and monopolizes the conversation with his daughter. He reminisces about his character’s early life, throws shade on well-known playwrights (“Arthur Miller was a hack”), and rants relentlessly about theater critics. (I thought long and hard before I put the actors’ names in parentheses after the names of their characters – apparently one of Davis’s pet peeves.) David is the kind of self-centered father who calls his fawning daughter ugly and then says it’s a joke. He takes off his shoes and thrusts his feet into Ella’s lap for a foot rub but callously pushes her away when she puts her feet in his lap, so he can return the favor. Sader maintains a deceptively calm exterior through many of these exchanges, speaking with a marked softness that makes his increasingly frequent explosions all the more harrowing.
Davis is not likely to win any awards for father of the year. Not only does he exploit Ella’s insecurities, he fuels them with wine, hits from a bong, and lines of cocaine. But if the first part of the show belongs to Sader, the shorter second act presents Earnest as a greatly transformed Ella. No longer fawning and seeking the approval of her father – who appears only as a sort of ghost-of-the-past figure – she has, instead, become her father. As the now confident, successful, and beautiful Ella, Earnest is beautifully put together in a chic top, slim high waited pants, and thick heels that command respect – no slutty stilettoes for her. But, it’s all just acting, and it’s a role she cannot maintain.
Given that playwright Halley Feiffer is the daughter of prolific cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer (currently 89, he married his third wife in 2016), one cannot help but wonder how much of I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is autobiographical. Nonetheless, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard (a line and a lesson taken from David’s mentor) offers an intriguing look into the home life of an award-winning, if fictional, playwright as well as two coveted roles of the type both characters debate in their alcohol fueled family night.
David Melton’s set is beautifully detailed and also utilitarian; it takes a beating before the evening is over. Ella sits and lounges on the coffee table, jumps in the sofa, and soaks the carpet with wine more than once. A mirror does double duty as a tray for cocaine, and a trash basket plays a featured role in a bloody accident. I did wonder, however, about one wall that featured a window and a single-panel door that appeared to be an apartment style door. It was not clear whether this door opened onto a corridor – in which case, why the window? – or onto the street. Michael Jarett’s lighting is subtle and takes a dramatic turn during key moments in the dialogue. Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design was equally subtle, at times almost imperceptible, as when the strains of West Side Story’s “Somewhere” supported Sader’s humming of the tune.
I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is gritty, meaty, and oh so worth your time, and David and Ella are two characters you’ll not soon forget.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.