We gave it an A-
”Above all else, do not be safe,” snarls David (Reed Birney), an aging, unhygienic-looking playwright dispensing noisome life lessons to his underachieving actress-daughter (Nurse Jackie‘s Betty Gilpin) over the course of one polluted evening in his Upper West Side eat-in kitchen. Their relationship is dysfunctional to an absurd extreme, and his advice to her later bursts like a cyanide capsule in the teeth of Halley Feiffer’s exhilaratingly toxic (if badly titled) new drama I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, currently playing through February 15 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2.
But those lines—”be anything but safe”—carry extra meaning outside the play because the most fearless actor in American theater speaks them. Reed Birney, now 60, has secured brief appearances on TV’s Girls and House of Cards, and scored a Tony nomination last year for his work as a cunning, Kennedy-era transvestite in Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, but as of this writing, he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. However, if you’ve been lucky enough to have caught him onstage—my first time was in an unforgettable 2008 production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted at NYC’s Soho Rep—then you’ve likely marveled at his extraordinary range and depth, his non-actorly facility with dialogue, and a rare talent for finding the dark sides of everymen and gentleness within monsters.
I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard‘s first act is essentially a one-man show for the actor, as David dominates Ella (Betty Gilpin) with a relentless fire hose of egotistical ranting. In this real-time fusillade of a conversation, Gilpin’s dialogue could fit on an index card—her Tourette’s-like word spurts consist mainly of ”Yes, yes!” and ”Dad? Dad!” But she knows, as we do, that agreement and submission is the only option when sharing a room with a man like David. He has something cruel and undermining to say about everyone, especially all those awful people—playwrights, directors, actors, audiences, critics—in the theater world. (And he says it colorfully: the F-word and its derivatives are uttered in the play more than 100 times.)
Yet what’s fascinating is the character is such a tightly-wound narcissist that even the slightest pinch of a comment made at his expense could cause him to implode. David tells a story about his mentor, whom he claims to have disowned after the man didn’t live up to his ideal of what a mentor should be. In the play’s tensest moment, he’s bragging—furiously, of course—about all the prizes he’s won, and when he crows about his Academy Award, Ella interrupts with the word ”?nomination.” Time stands still. She may as well have knifed him in the heart.
Speaking of Academy Awards, none of the guys up for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor for this years Oscars gives a performance as realistically rotted-out and spellbinding as Birney’s in this play; it’s amazing to think of how he would have—and could have—played all ten of the nominated male roles, from Foxcatcher‘s haunted John du Pont to the sadistic music teacher in Whiplash.
In the play’s briefer second act, the play jumps a few years and uses a self-conscious theatrical device to dramatize the effects of Ella’s venomous tutelage by her father. Feiffer’s writing isn’t as sharp when having to draw conclusions, but that’s not to take any credit away from the spectacular tension and real danger that she and director Trip Cullman build in the first hour. In one scene, after he’s forced wine down Ella’s throat, David unveils a bag of cocaine from his pocket and the two proceed to snort it off of a Drama Desk Award plaque. (An honor, by the way, that Birney and the Atlantic Theater Company have both claimed in real life; the plaque used here is, alas, a prop.) It’s a poisonous metaphor for the emptiness of this squalid, self-important universe that David inhabits—and exactly the sort of dank, outrageous truth that Birney is a master at uncovering. A-