I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard is a play about a genius playwright father and his daughter, an aspiring actress who cares for him. The potently acted drama is a bit like David Auburn’s Proof, only a darker and more harrowing ride. The production of the play at the Pittsburgh Playhouse is the closest that I’ve ever gotten to a New York City off-Broadway production in Pittsburgh. The acting was particularly strong and while the play is engaging, there are certainly some elements in the script that detract from making the play completely engaging.
Martin Giles drops seamlessly into playing the role of David, a mean-spirited Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who is deep in the process of trying to drink himself to death in an Upper West Side Apartment. David commences to tear through a long litany of curse words that at one part focuses on perhaps the most hated of all theater-goers, the critic. David’s focus then turns towards the director who has failed to recognize the talent of his daughter, Ella, played by Cathryn Dylan.
Much of the first half of the play is focused on letting David foam at the mouth with swear words. There are moments where David’s speech creates an atmosphere of uncomfortableness. There are moments where it seems like David keeps running on the one note of his tirade a little too long. But, in retrospect, most of this anger is needed to make the character work. David’s rage eventually even turns against his own daughter. At one point, David goes so far as to insinuate that Ella’s did not get the part because the director wanted to cast a pretty stress in the role. Meanwhile, Ella keeps helping her father to pour white wine down his throat, then marijuana, then cocaine. Eventually, David cools down at an alarming flick of the switch. Ella seems well acquainted with the terror of her father. But, that’s where the play hits one of its potential snags.
The character of Ella in the first act of the play exists only to adore and goad on her father. Ella seems to exist just to keep the man talking. At one point, while she sits in his lap, the relationship between David and Ella seems to veer towards tones of an Electra complex. But that moment is quickly defused. Ella continues to let her father talk and apologizes profusely when she interrupts. Cathryn Dylan portrays Ella as less of a meek or nervous woman, but a woman who blindly worships her father.
Sitting through the first act of the play, it is very easy for the viewer to also feel trapped in David’s world. The first half of I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard is particularly challenging because the act extends for a much longer length of time than the second half of the play. Calling the part of the play after intermission a “half” is even a bit of a misnomer, epilogue would be more fitting.
In the epilogue that takes place many years later, Ella has become a successful and self-confident actress. Although we know precious little about Ella during the first half of the play, it is extremely difficult to view this woman as Ella. Ella has likely taken the psychological terror installed in her by father and used to become a cocaine hungry, celebrity who barks at people on their phones. Eventually, an older David, who has now survived a stroke, comes shuffling onto the stage. While we anxiously wait for the character to embark on another litany of swear words, we learn that David has become increasingly more peaceful in his later days.
The set design for the play was at a particularly high level. As was the stage direction. The play used every bit of the Studio Theater. And the design effectively evoked the mood of a New York City apartment. Musical and sound cues are used in small places throughout the play to sometimes distracting and sometimes successful ends. But, ultimately, the staging and set fall second to the acting performances, particularly the role of David. There is one staging technique that is used in the play’s epilogue that works particularly well at capturing the feeling of being trapped in an apartment with David. So, the staging and set while certainly effective and believable exist mainly to heighten the terror and anger of David.
And while I could muse on the play’s commentary about the trappings of fame, at the end of the day I don’t understand why either of the characters changed in the way that they did. Due to the strength of the actor’s performances, I buy the transformations of these two characters. I’m just not sure how to treat the disparate ends.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets.
I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard runs through October 16th. For tickets and more information, click here.