For those who have often sat in a darkened theater wondering, “What is that character thinking?,” Craig Lucas has written a play for you. “Prayer for My Enemy” is about a suburban American family coping with its particular brand of dysfunction. Over the course of 90 minutes, the characters bicker and try to connect — and also speak many of their thoughts out loud. This internal talk (Lucas calls it “the psychic interior”) depicts the hate, love, fear and hope that lie beneath the family’s interactions. It’s the most interesting, and problematic, aspect of Lucas’ newest venture.
John Procaccino plays deeply messed-up dad Austin, a not entirely sane Vietnam vet who turned to alcohol to self-medicate. Austin’s whole family hovers around him, trying to placate him, humor him, monitor him to keep things from flying out of control. His wife Karen (Cynthia Lauren Tewes) shuts out everything painful; his son Billy (Daniel Zaitchik) goes to fight in Iraq in a futile attempt to win his approval; his daughter Marianne (Chelsey Rives) takes a stab at happiness by hooking up with Billy’s childhood friend Tad (James McMenamin). Meanwhile, Billy and Tad try to ignore a sexual charge that’s existed between them since they were young.
A sixth character — a lone woman (Kimberly King) caring for her aged mother — is also introduced, though her significance is unclear until near the end of the play.
The script is having its first airing at Seattle’s Intiman Theater, where Lucas is associate artistic director. Artistic director Bartlett Sher, Lucas’ collaborator on “The Light in the Piazza” and many other projects, has staged the play with customary grace. The sets are modest (consisting mostly of roll-on furniture), and the roles are all wonderfully acted. The young adults Marianne, Billy and Tad are particularly winning, their struggles punctuated with the biting, observant humor that is a trademark of Lucas’ work.
But about that interior dialogue: While it’s sometimes funny or surprising to hear the contrast between thought and dialogue, the constant switching between the two (usually accompanied by distracting changes in lighting) slows the action. For a play that runs 90 minutes without intermission, “Prayer” seems strangely talky and drawn out. Although a fair number of things happen (a random act of violence, a birth), the emphasis is not on the drama of these events but on the chatter filling the space between them.
The device also makes one keenly aware that the most interesting aspects of a character or script are often unsaid: the profound discrepancy between words and actions, the mysteries of human behavior. In “Prayer,” the internal speeches sometimes spell out too much. At one point Marianne berates her father in her thoughts for not accepting her brother: “He wouldn’t have enlisted if you’d ever made him feel like a man … if you’d taken any responsibility for your own feelings and said how proud you were,” she thinks. OK. We get it.
But as always, it’s hard to criticize Lucas’ work. While other playwrights produce over-processed scripts about whatever topics are in this year’s news, Lucas plunges back into dark territory he has explored before — familial cycles of neglect and pain; the tyranny of alcoholism; the rage underscoring modern American life — bringing light and craft to previously unlit corners.
As Sher has said, Lucas is one of the American theater’s best writers. “Prayer” may not yet be one of his best plays, but he’s probably not done with it. (One character listed in the program does not appear onstage, a sign that the script was still in flux quite recently.) Together, the playwright and Sher will take another run at this new work in September at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theater.