Now that the country is so steeped in offensive incivility, Halley Feiffer’s 2015 Off-Broadway play “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard” shouldn’t come across as a 90-minute, cringe-inducing shock.
Yet it does.
Feiffer, the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer, has gone metatheatrical to explore a poisonous father-daughter dynamic. Her soul-bruising example of reaping what one sows has just opened in an impactful yet decidedly hard-to-watch production at GableStage.
The play’s David Berryman (née Bergenstein), a Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning playwright, possesses an ego the size of Manhattan and a parenting style that makes Joan “No Wire Hangers” Crawford seem nurturing. David’s actor-daughter Ella, vulnerable and needy, eventually morphs into the spitting emotional image of dear old dad, cruelty and ego included.
The longer first “act” (there is no intermission) is set in the kitchen of Berryman’s Upper West Side apartment, a decidedly modest and dated space given his purported success, which includes an Oscar nomination. He and Ella are huddled at the table, downing major quantities of white wine and smoking as they wait for the reviews of her Off-Broadway debut as Masha in “The Seagull” to show up online.
Feiffer structures the first part of the play as an almost-monologue for David (Tom Aulino), with occasional interruptions from Ella (Rebecca Berens), who largely keeps to her function: serving as her pontificating father’s raptly adoring audience.
Wine-fueled (and later powered by weed and cocaine), David holds forth on his dark family history (his abusive, alcoholic widower-father kicked him out at 17; his lesbian older sister wrote a book blaming him for their younger sister’s death), his loathing for critics and myriad theater practitioners, and his belief – no, his insistence – that Ella is destined for greatness.
Ella? She largely giggles, sometimes making the mistake of interjecting an opinion or revealing she’s not quite the rapt acolyte her father requires. She generally responds to his liberal use of casually homophobic slurs by exclaiming, “Dad!” or “Daddy!” And an ostensibly sweet moment of reminiscence, in which the two remember a turtle game they played when she was a toddler fresh out of her bath, gives off a distinctly creepy vibe.
The second act, which takes place after a five-year estrangement, finds Ella on the cusp of breakthrough stardom thanks to her 12-character, highly autobiographical solo show. As David shows up bearing opening night roses, it is instantly clear that their power positions have flipped, as Ella is every inch the sleek monster formed by her Dr. Frankenstein father.
Director Joseph Adler gets a pair of take-no-prisoners performances from Aulino and Behrens. He’s an award-winning Detroit-based actor with extensive New York and regional credits, while she’s the writer-director-star of the web series “Running Local” (now streaming on Amazon Prime) as well as a film and New York theater actor.
Playing vicious combatants in a family psychodrama, conveying the playwright’s carefully constructed legacy of substance abuse, raging ego and rage (never has an ashtray been emptied as aggressively as it is, repeatedly, in this play), the actors commit fully and persuasively to playing Feiffer’s damaged, repugnant characters.
The GableStage design team delivers, as always, via Lyle Baskin’s lived-in kitchen set, Beth Fath’s props, Steve Welsh’s lighting, Matt Corey’s sound design and music, and Ellis Tillman’s costumes, which particularly underscore Ella’s transformation from woman-child to an exploitative artist with a clear taste for cruelty.
In “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” even prayer becomes an act of vengeance against enemies and inferiors, real and imagined. For those unnerved by the never-ending barrage of presidential Tweets and America’s ongoing dark night of the soul, Feiffer’s dispiriting play is a piece of theater that captures the mood of the moment.
If you go
- What: ‘I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard’ by Halley Feiffer.
- Where: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
- When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through July 8.
- Cost: $42-$60 (students $15 Thursday and Sunday evenings).
- Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.