‘Pray’ play combines intimacy, brutality

In “I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard,” a father and daughter sit across from each other at a kitchen banquette on the Upper West Side. The father, David, played by Reed Birney, is a callous and destructively frank playwright who whizzes around the flower-papered kitchen, delivering a violent monologue of sorts as his daughter sits crossed-legged, on-edge.

The daughter, Ella, played by an emotionally-charged Betty Gilpin, is a blooming young actress. The two gulp down white wine and chain-smoke cigarettes, as Ella anxiously awaits the critics’ review of “The Seagull,” which has opened earlier this evening. 

Although appearing artificially frantic at times, Gilpin’s vulnerable Ella is an honest portrayal of the destructive daddy’s-girl relationship she has with her father. David uses her blind, unconditional love to pierce her with his ruthless commentary right where she’s most tender. Ella yips like a small terrier loyal to its owner, which, in this case, is her egoistic father. Birney’s volatile and roaring David is too self-consumed to truly care for his daughter, and hides insults amidst wishes for Ella’s stardom despite her very fragile state this evening.

When David takes his vicious attacks too far for even his devoted Ella, father and daughter begin an inescapable path toward resembling one another.

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In a shorter but powerful second act, the Atlantic Theater Company’s black box theater is used as the stage in a neat moment of metatheatricality. An utterly transformed Ella is seen years later on opening night of a one-woman play she has written, directed and stars in. Despite her tight red dress and unkempt blonde curls, we dismally realize that we’re watching her father. Cold and callous, Ella paces around the black box theater barking orders into her earbuds without an ounce of sensitivity.

When her shriveled father, also nearly unrecognizable in both appearance and demeanor, enters with flowers, Ella doesn’t flinch. Playwright Halley Feiffer provocatively takes the play to a jarring edge as these two, largely indistinguishable forces come face to face. Gilpin brilliantly projects staggering numbness and indifference toward her stroke-afflicted father during his final attempt to make amends.

Even with moments of confrontation and uncomfortable brutality, the small size of the theater encourages unavoidable intimacy. The second act creates moments that paralyze the entire body in utter disbelief. In this disturbing exploration of toxic paternal relationships, “I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard” gives us a reason to pray for these characters.

“I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard” plays at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 through March 1.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 10 print edition. Email Caroline Cunfer at [email protected].

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