He’s been discoursing for a while, this character called David Berryman—né Bergenstein — drinking and smoking (the pot and coke will come later) and telling well-worn stories, and now he’s in high dudgeon over the suggestion he might have regrets. “Everything I did — every decision I made — led me right here — right to this moment, here with you,” bellows the angry, inebriated, once-very-successful playwright in dirty pajamas in the kitchen of his Upper West Side apartment. “You think I regret having you?”
“I—I don’t know,” replies his daughter, Ella, slightly less bedraggled but equally drunk, an actor waiting for reviews of her opening-night performance as Masha in “The Seagull.”
“I regret nothing,” says David. “Do you know why? Because it gave me my play. If I hadn’t done all that — if none of that shit had ever happened? I never would’ve written ‘The Battle of Long Island.’ I never would have won the Pulitzer, two Tonys! I never would’ve gone on to write ‘Gavalt’! Or ‘Mr. Feingold’! Or ‘Four Questions’! Goddamn it, I never would’ve gotten a f–king Academy Award!”
Ella completes his sentence gingerly but reflexively: “…nomination.”
That, in a nutshell, is the relationship between David (Reed Birney) and Ella (Betty Gilpin), father and daughter, through most of Halley Feiffer’s curious, compelling, very funny, and slightly frightening — in a good way — new two-hander about family and theatrical dysfunction, “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” now playing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Atlantic Stage 2. (The play also takes on the conventions of reviewing, including the dreaded parenthetical actor mention. More, then, on the performances later.)
David is bombastic and a bully; Ella is enthralled and timid — but with a hint of steel. And while David has shed his last name, abandoned his Russian-immigrant father, moved from the Sheepshead Bay of his childhood to a Manhattan apartment big enough to eat in the kitchen, even won those awards, he can’t get past who he once was, either. He’s an over-the-hill success, three — even four — sheets to the wind in an old corduroy blazer, dissolute as an old Wasp, but his past stays with him. A play called “Gavalt”? Oy.
If “The Seagull,” Ella’s play inside this play, is about a creative son so overshadowed and ignored by his famous-actor mother that he can’t go on, “I’m Gonna Pray For You” is its inverse: about a creative daughter who rejects her father but cannot help but become him. Indeed, that’s the theme here: David rejects his childhood but turned into his father; Ella abandons her own father but, nearly literally, turns into him.
“I’m Gonna Pray for You” — which takes a meta-theatrical twist two-thirds of the way through that upends a story just as it’s at the edge of turning obvious — asks us to consider the relationship between parents and children, between past and present, and whether we can ever get away from who we are and where we come from. Its troubling suggestion is that we cannot. The sins of the father, it seems to argue, are immutable.
This message takes on an added frisson when one considers that Feiffer, a respected young actress and successful rising playwright, is the daughter of Jules Feiffer, the well-known cartoonist and satirist. She had her own struggles with alcohol, as fictionalized in the 2013 indie film she co-wrote and starred in, “He’s Way More Famous Than You,” and she certainly knows something about being the child of a prize-winning artist. But one presumes (hopes?) dad is not actually this ragingly narcissistic.
Feiffer’s last off-Broadway outing as a playwright was “How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them,” at the Rattlestick last season. That play showed its author’s flair for the grotesque and the melodramatic, but it did not leave its audience moved, except ultimately toward the theater’s exit as quickly as possible. In this far more successful work, Feiffer accomplishes what her character demands and she does it by heeding the father-character’s admonition to always be fearless. And her playwriting is not just bold but also carefully, elegantly constructed: Layers echo layers echo life echoes the play’s point about echoing life.
She’s aided by director Trip Cullman’s excellent staging, which underlines the dysfunction between father and daughter even in their codependent stage and smartly elevates the final-third transition by throwing the audience even further off kilter than is called for in the script.
Finally, then, to those previously parenthesized performers. Reed Birney is a quintessential New York stage actor, intelligent, honest, always excellent, someone whose work is consistently prized among those relatively few who know his name. (He also has a recurring role on “House of Cards” and earned a Tony nomination last year for his work in “Casa Valentina.”) His performance as David is extraordinary, a charming monster, funny and scary and sad. Betty Gilpin, as Ella, is also excellent, especially in the play’s final moments, as her character has become a different person.
In those final moments, Ella, his become angry, mean, and jaded, but she is a success. So, too, though one hopes without so much collateral damage, is the playwright.
Jesse Oxfeld has written about theater for the New York Observer and New York Magazine.