Just Like a Pill: First Floor Theater's 'I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard'
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
Prepare for involuntary grimaces, unsettling daddy-daughter dynamics, and frustration over family inheritances if you choose to sit through ninety minutes of First Floor Theater's I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard. Currently running in 2B at The Den Theatre, this more festering than funny play is directed by Cole von Glahn and penned by Halley Feiffer, with the basis derived from her own relationship with her famous cartoonist father. If this play is any indication, to say it's complicated would be a gross understatement.
This Chicago premiere serves as the conclusion to FFT's 2018-19 season. After experiencing a salacious, sex-fueled high from Mike Pence Sex Dream, this show left me feeling low and questioning its status as a concrete closer. Most of the play centers on the prizeworthy playwright, but pus inducing of a man, David (Tim Kidwell). He relays stories of the good ole days of theatre, but the more he rants, he's anything but resentful of the craft he's been granted various accolades for. Aspiring actress Ella (Amanda Caryl Fink) hangs on his every word as if waiting for the magical solution to fall from his lips to solidify her own success. Her role is presented as less talking, and more gawking.
This troubling dynamic is meant to be nerve inducing and further delves into levels of desperation from their shared bottles of wine, bongs, and coke benders. But the longer the evening stretches on, it leads to questioning if toxicity has its limits. From the beginning, David's grandstanding feels like verbal waterboarding. My ears were clogged with words losing their impact and I felt winded after five minutes when he had about another hour to go. This isn't based on the merit of performance, as Kidwell delivers a riveting portrait of a man we're supposed to cringe and sigh at, and he does so masterfully.
Fink is also admirable for bringing innovation and intention to such little dialogue. As David rattles on, her role is reduced to that of spectator. She replies in repetitions, feigning surprise and suspense of disbelief to deliver the best performance as an audience member. While Feiffer granting her few words is intentional to recognize how David unapologetically takes up so much space, it's hard to endure. Their means of communication emulates a dynamic all too familiar in theatre, but replicating the issue in this framework feels harmful instead of helpful. To have to sit through so much of David's sexist, homophobic, and abusive views without any rebuttal doesn't cause its audience to become numb, but triggered, and ultimately drained.
Ella manages to be a foil in two brief instances. The first arises in the sole interruption she can muster in David's ego driven dialogue with one word that caused the house to come down celebrating her minor victory. Ella has her say for longer than two sentences in the last half and hour of the show, but it's not even her voice. She only speaks in pontificated phrases and problematic beliefs from her father, repeating verbatim his poison. To see Ella become her father isn't surprising, but more importantly it's disappointing as it takes away any potential dimension or individuality she could have fostered.
I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard is a play critics creamed over a couple years ago, but today feels stunted in its time. In the phase of adoration for frazzled, boozy families, it buzzed during its 2015 Off-Broadway premiere. I could only find one critic who summarized my feelings about it now: "Finally, a dramatically charged scene! But it comes much too late to justify this exhausting exercise in therapeutic playwriting." From only a couple years out since its inception, it's fascinating to see how quickly relevance can shift. Musical theatre definitely has a man problem, but it's time to examine if the future of the contemporary family drama might be in peril as well.