Oh, Those Wacky Theater People
Constructivists' staging of "I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard" is funny, biting look at a theatrical family starring James Pickering
For the last few seasons, a company called The Constructivists has been establishing a self-described shoestring operation and intriguing “dark avenue” into the arts scene, tenaciously asking for consideration with the major professional theater companies but long held back by union requirements and its catchall homes. Other theater companies also started out in such uncertain circumstances, but by dint of their insights and growing expertise commanded larger attention.
With its last show of this season the Constructivists deserve such recognition, too, with a caustic two-hander that reaches for first class acting and generational appeal. It ostensibly takes place when a famous playwright father, David, and his theatrically-attuned daughter, Ella, are carousing at home while he shares his “to hell with the critics” philosophy that won him a Pulitzer and Tonys while they are waiting for the opening night review of a Chekhov play she is in. The gossipy trappings of theater fame and history unfold in sneering dissection of celebrity names and those constant dreads of all celebrities, the critics.
In fact, much of the fun of I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is watching the bile pile up on all these theatrical types, which certainly seems David’s mode of operation that he is trying to pass on to his daughter. You’ll quickly discover that theater people are even more foul-mouthed than the general public, but oh so clever.
The 100-minute play was first done in 2015 and written by an established actress, playwright and producer, Halley Feiffer.
The company has gone Actors Equity for the first time. It has brought in a long-established and beloved Milwaukee stage veteran, James Pickering, well matched with an established Constructivist actress Rebekah Farr (who deserves professional status) as the father and daughter engaged in bitter memories, he talking endlessly about his fame and she squealing, cuddling and commenting in delight to what we suspect are for her long familiar stories — because there is an edge to her listening that suggests how easily he can become offended and surly if he discovers her familiarity with his legendary tales.
Now viewers may suspect without proof that there is some real-life nasty anecdotes at work, since playwright Halley is the daughter of veteran social satirist and playwright Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge), who could be talking about his famous contemporaries in theater and film.
But it is more common these days to see father-daughter matches and mismatches in many professions – in theater alone, playwright Romulus Linney and actress Laura Linney spring to mind – and there is something delicious in imagining how many professions these days are seeing the contrast between the profane bigoted side of the older generation and the permutations in how the heritage influences the younger set. Halley Feiffer handles the aging gap and familiarity of professions with character cleverness.
This play has much fun with the bonding/backfires of David and Ella over smoking, drinking, sharing pot and even snorting cocaine together, a setup that has something to do with the revelations as well as the intimacy. The play is obviously heading for an emotional turnaround meant to surprise and strangely satisfy the viewers – and then flips our expectations again, with a conclusion a reviewer should not discuss.
Director Jaimelyn Gray (also the Constructivists founder) does more than trust her actors – she finds ways for them to connect, freeze and separate as needed in a fast-moving script that demands speed and change of pace. There was such emphasis on giving the actors scope that fuller use should have been made of the bare-bones theater space.
Pickering, so well known to the public from his youth in The Nerd at the Rep to endless turns as Ebenezer Scrooge, will still startle you with his energy and quick thinking. He remains an acting marvel of subtlety and power. He is adept at being cruel and pathetic in the earlier going, then shifting into a physical finale that few other actors could carry off. Farr as the daughter coils in fear, erupts in emotion and freezes perfectly before lashing out. I think the ending scene could have been tightened up, but this is a duo performance well worth catching.
The Constructivists have staged this show and may perhaps do others at the Interchange Theater Co-op space. The theater is the basement venue of the famous red gothic Calvary Church on Wisconsin Avenue. If you enter on 10th Street you will find this surprisingly useful little theater with corner pillars that’s been employed for various theatrical events, including as the long time home of the now defunct but fondly remembered In Tandem Theatre (whose founders are still active in Wisconsin theater). For this play with minimal settings, it is informally two sided, only set up for about 200 viewers, which suggests tickets will be in demand through April 29.