Halley Feiffer, daughter of legendary cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer, has penned a bad-dad play that makes monster-mom plays look like affectionate love smacks. “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard” is a labored work of meta-theater about an anxious young actress and her doting dad, a successful playwright, awaiting press notices of her performance in “The Seagull.” But despite sturdy performances from Reed Birney and Betty Gilpin (“Nurse Jackie”) and the slick-as-spit helming of Trip Cullman, this mannered two-hander at the Atlantic Theater Company is relentlessly repetitive and stupefyingly dull, of little interest beyond its own insular community of self-regarding theatricals.
For the spacious upper West Side apartment of a commercially successful playwright, Mark Wendland’s kitchen setting is a cramped cave of dirty dishes, half-empty wine bottles, overflowing ashtrays, and messy stacks of papers. Not that these space restrictions really matter, since the action is pretty much confined to the small table where David Berryman (Birney) and daughter Ella (Gilpin) sit drinking, smoking, snorting coke, and talking trash, while nervously awaiting the critical word on Ella’s Off Broadway debut.
In blisteringly colorful language, David rails against the entire theater business, from directors who cast vapidly pretty girls (like the girl who was cast as Nina) over “real” actresses (like Ella, who had to settle for Masha) to critics who use words like “sturdy” to describe an actor’s performance. “As if you’re a fucking stool they enjoyed sitting on for the evening!”
In David’s self-serving view, he’s Ella’s biggest — possibly her only — fan. The cruel criticism and crippling demands are his idea of encouragement, his twisted way of assuring her that, “You’re it. You’re a genius. You’re gonna be a star.”
Ella’s reaction to her father’s bizarre tutoring is largely limited to excitable shrieks and squeals and choking laughter, the only proper responses from an adoring audience of one. She should know, poor girl, because whenever she does dare to insert an opinion of her own, the old man cuts her down for interrupting his bitter monologue, which, as the evening wears on, becomes less about her and more about his own life and career.
Birney is one of those rare actors who can do just about anything. He won a Tony nomination last season for playing a stylish cross-dresser in Harvey Fierstein’s “Casa Valentina.” But he’s also a treasured asset in downtown theater (memorable in the title role of “Uncle Vanya” at Soho Rep) and a valuable TV character actor (in “House of Cards”). In this bravura performance, he’s the wolfish leader of a pack of two against the world, snapping at dopey Ella and snarling in rage at perceived slights to his egomaniacal view of himself.
Feiffer’s savagely satiric mode of attack doesn’t spare David’s needy daughter, who expresses her childish, quasi-incestuous dependence on daddy’s approval by jumping into his lap, wrapping her arms and legs around him, and loudly demanding his love. Gilpin is game, but the girl is a certifiable mental case.
Gilpin gets her big closeup in the meta-theatrical coda, which jumps ahead five years to illustrate the scribe’s vengeful point that Ella has thoroughly mastered the life lessons she learned from her bitter, twisted genius of a father. Finally, a dramatically charged scene! But it comes much too late to justify this exhausting exercise in therapeutic playwriting.