Dallas — Jenny Ledel sits opposite Barry Nash in a cubed-shaped chunk of New York kitchen, floating in the otherwise unadorned black-box of the Green Zone where Kitchen Dog Theater is currently encamped. What follows is close-quarter combat of the father-daughter dysfunctional familial type in the regional premiere of I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard by Halley Feiffer. Director Lee Trull keeps the intensely performing duo moving around the confined space like a king trying to keep another king in check, but for all skill of the performers the evening feels like watching chess champions playing checkers.
Nash plays the famous, now fading playwright father to Ledel’s eager actress daughter on the occasion of her off-Broadway debut. It’s opening night and the two are waiting for the reviews to come in. He spews racism and bigotry, but she doesn’t bat an eye as she basks in his stories of Broadway gone by. Though Nash has enormous monologues, Ledel’s eager listening makes them into dialogues. Her reactions to his stories become the story for us. Occasionally, when she oversteps, he withdraws his attention like a spoiled child threatening to take his toys and go home, until she regresses far enough for him to seem like the adult again. It’s co-dependency redefined.
Considering Halley Feiffer is the daughter of the cartoonist/playwright, Jules Feiffer, there’s an unfair but unavoidable biographical comparison lurking here. Outside of their profession there may be no aspect of their weird relationship (they pop each other’s pimples on stage) that is similar, but there is also no real revelation, either. His story is one of self-defining escape from his father’s disapproval. When Ms. Feiffer has Ella complete the cycle, as satisfying as it is, it’s no surprise.
The reason to see the play is the craft of Nash and Ledel, two actors at the top of their game.
Though Nash’s opening moments seem like he knows that he’ll be speaking for the bulk of the evening, it’s because his character, David, probably does, too. It’s a machine gun of bitterness interrupted only by wine, pot and coke. The patter lulls the audience into lowered expectations so that the moment he breaks into sincere imploring prayer (not like the aggressive pseudo-prayer of the title) his vulnerability is total.
Ledel’s journey as Ella goes in the opposite direction. Like an insect without its shell she’s completely vulnerable for the first half of the play. It’s a masterful display considering the dearth of lines. Unfortunately, playwright Feiffer has set it up so that her metamorphosis will lead to a shell hard enough to keep her father out, sure—but us as well.
Clare Floyd Devries’ set of a stage set inside of a blackened theater gives lighting designer Aaron Johansen easy pickings for intimate washes, but it also begs a question about the line between onstage and off. What makes for theater, but life after all? For some, what makes for life is theater.
The characters communicate in a sort of theater shorthand singing and quoting lines, especially West Side Story and Waiting for Godot. It comes down to a question of whether “There’s a place for us” or “Nothing to be done.” With artists like Nash and Ledel the answer is clearly the former.
Less obvious, but just as vital, is the need for everyone else involved—from the props designer (Stefany Cambra) to the technical director (Drew Wall) to the stage manager (Ruth Stephenson) to the critic writing the review (David Novinski) to the place you’re reading it (TheaterJones).
If you are still reading it and agree that there’s a place for us, check out our IndieGoGo.
Unless, that is, you agree that there’s nothing to be done.