Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Theatre review: I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard

A disturbing little piece at the Finborough in Halley Feiffer's I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, another American play about writing but dealing with a different popular opinion about the profession than Sex With Strangers did: Laura Eason's play was about the writer as part of some noble calling; Feiffer's subject is the writer as damaged goods, the Hemingway model of the alcoholic genius and the idea that the better the writer, the worse the human being. By that logic David (Adrian Lukis) must be an amazing writer: A celebrated playwright, he has a single daughter, Ella (Jill Winternitz,) whom he had late in life with his second wife. Ella is an actress who's just opened as Masha in a prestige revival of The Seagull, but her father wastes no opportunity to mention that getting any role other than Nina makes her a failure. It's Press Night but instead of waiting with the rest of the cast for the reviews, she's getting drunk at home with David.

The first half-hour of I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard is essentially a monologue as David regales his daughter with anecdotes about his amazing life and career, and Winternitz is required only to squeal with laughter and amazement at them.

It kind of has the feel of Feiffer providing an onstage audience to tell us how entertaining the speech is*, so a full one-third of the play is a lot to spend on this buildup, but it does serve as a clue to their relationship: Of course Ella has heard all this before but to admit she's anything other than fascinated would set her father off into a rage, and does when she makes the mistake of finishing one of his sentences. So the play then becomes a study of an emotionally abusive father - there's a few references to Stockholm Syndrome, a form of which seems to be David's approach towards making his daughter dependent on his many insults and occasional rewards (which tend to be in the form of drugs.) The choice of The Seagull is of course on-theme too; instead of Masha or Nina, maybe Ella should be playing Konstantin‡.

After the occasionally entertaining but often obnoxious first section (Lukis' performance may be frighteningly spot-on but it's very loud for such a small room) the middle part is the strongest but also the hardest to watch as Feiffer anatomises the way the bombastic, aggressively homophobic David oppresses his daughter and pushes her to breaking point. After the first hour playing out in real time, a final scene jumps forward to see Ella having broken free from her father's influence, but to have become as much of a monster herself in the process. There's obvious strengths to I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard but because of the subject matter I found it very hard to like; I'd also say that, unless director Jake Smith has seriously missed something in his production, the description of it as a black comedy is well off the mark - there's little to laugh at here, even bitterly. Strong performances and a script that shows insight into some dark places, but if I still drank I'd probably be heading straight for the bar after this.

I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard by Halley Feiffer is booking until the 25th of March at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander.

*have you had the misfortune of reading The Da Vinci Code? 'Cause it reminded me of the bit where Langdon has a flashback† to a lecture he gave where he explained the premise of the book, and all his students stood up to applaud and shout out "OH MY GOD THIS LECTURE IS VERY INTERESTING," "ANYONE TELLING THIS STORY MUST BE SOME KIND OF GENIUS," "I LOVE HOW EVERYTHING YOU'RE SAYING IS TOTALLY ORIGINAL AND DEFINITELY NOT PLAGIARISED" and "IF SOMEONE WROTE A THRILLER ABOUT THIS THEORY IT SHOULD DEFINITELY BE A BESTSELLER AND NET ITS AUTHOR A LOT OF MONEY."

†he has this flashback while he's running for his life, because that's not the sort of situation where you'd want to be paying attention. OMG THE PLOTTING IT AM SO STRONG.

‡as this is a play that spends some time laying into reviewers, I felt the need to respond to the running reference to putting actors' names in parentheses, as that's generally how I style my reviews: As I tend to start with a summary of the plot, this is the most obvious way of introducing the characters and who's playing them. It's not always possible to give a detailed critique of every performance - professional reviewers have word count limits, those of us doing it in our spare time have time limitations. I'd consider mentioning someone later in a review in parentheses as meaning that I might not have much to say about them but they were noticed, and not wanting to leave them out entirely. Of course, the whole "in parentheses" as an insult thing may be a red herring - as it's an idea David introduces, it may not necessarily be Feiffer's opinion, but David deliberately turning something innocuous into a perceived slight, knowing full well it's likely to happen and he can use it as a stick to beat Ella with.

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