SR review: “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard” at First Floor Theater

Halley Feiffer’s bleak two-hander is one nasty father-daughter dance

Theater review by Kris Vire

Artists bitching about critics is a tale as old as time, I suppose. That’s what was going through my mind in the opening minutes of Halley Feiffer’s 2015 two-hander I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, which opened Wednesday night in a First Floor Theater production. That the opening came in a week filled with a fresh batch of celebrities, from Lizzo to Ariana Grande to Michael Che, taking to their social media accounts to blast everybody that works at all them blogs didn’t escape me. Indeed, what are we all doing analyzing art when we could be feeling lit inside?

The (awkward) title of Feiffer’s play is revealed, about midway through her script, to be an artist’s mantra against critics and other perceived enemies. Unlike Ariana’s exhortation, though, there are no positive vibes behind it. Like the Southern ladies of my youth who weaponized the phrase “bless your heart,” “I’m gonna pray for you so hard” is a fuck-you in polite disguise.

David (Tim Kidwell), the blisteringly bitter old-school playwright who dominates the first hour of Feiffer’s 90-minute piece, rages against the critical profession in spectacularly vulgar (and moderately homophobic) terms. He’s ostensibly inoculating his actress daughter, Ella (Amanda Caryl Fink), against the forthcoming reviews of the Off Broadway revival of The Seagull she’s just opened, as the two drink, smoke and chase a few bong rips with several healthy bumps of coke.

But really, who needs to worry about what the Times reviewer said when you’ve got Daddie Dearest as your harshest critic? David casually tears Ella down with cutting remarks about her insufficient ambition and why she got cast as Masha while the prettier girl got Nina. That’s when he’s not waxing nostalgic about his own career highs and lows, noisily proclaiming his complete lack of regrets over cutting himself off from his own father and siblings. (He’s lying.) Ella takes in these speeches she must have heard two million times raptly, worshipfully, egging her father on, only protesting weakly when he throws in a gratuitous gay slur, which is about every five minutes.

I’ll try not to read too much into the fact that Halley Feiffer, an actor as well as a playwright, is the daughter of Jules Feiffer, an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and cartoonist whose résumé bears similarities to David’s. Feiffer’s script sort of addresses the question, actually, in the play’s much shorter second scene, which takes place some years after the first.

Ella, now a successful solo writer-performer, snippily tells a journalist interviewing her by phone that it’s beside the point to ask how much of her new work is autobiographical. (She’s lying.) Estranged from her father, Ella has made it by adopting the worst traits of his egotism—as Feiffer demonstrates with none-too-subtle direct echoes of his earlier preening, prattling speeches.

Feiffer has sculpted two meaty characters that have obvious appeal for the actors that get to chew on them. And in Cole von Glahn’s staging, Kidwell and Fink go well beyond “sturdy” (a critical adjective that comes in for particular scorn in David’s rantings); they’re near frenzied in their commitment to animating these deeply unlikeable people. Their performances are impressive: Fink making Ella’s craving for approval cringe-inducingly palpable; Kidwell’s Brooklyn-accented bluster occasionally giving way to flashes of vulnerability; and both of them undergoing significant shifts in the second scene.

But while Feiffer imbues David and Ella with traits, she doesn’t give them much to do. David’s toxic blend of narcissism and insecurity poisons his daughter, yes. Viewing fame as your birthright—or having a parent tell you it is—can be crippling. But these don’t feel like new discoveries, and even at 90 minutes Feiffer’s insidery script can feel repetitive, and, frankly, exhausting in its relentless negativity. For all of Fink and Kidwell’s hard emotional work onstage, I didn’t have much of a takeaway apart from—well, like Ms. Grande said: “People are so lost.”


I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard

First Floor Theater at the Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave). By Halley Feiffer. Directed by Cole von Glahn.

Cast: Amanda Caryl Fink (Ella), Tim Kidwell (David).

Designers: Joy Ahn (scenic), Alexis Carrie (costumes), Becca Jeffords (lighting), Sarah D. Espinoza (sound), Claire Stone (properties). Assistant Director: Evey Reidy.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes; no intermission. Through May 18. Tickets ($25, students $20) at firstfloortheater.com.

Photographs by WHO IS SHE


Thanks for being a Storefront Rebellion paid subscriber!

If someone forwarded you this email, and you’d like to support independent, ad-free coverage of Chicago theater, you can sign up as a subscriber right now:

Send your feedback and tips to kris@krisvire.com.