Is there a yearning more primal than for the approval of a parent? Well, if you happen to be in the theater, the approval of critics comes in a close second.
Both are captured, pitfalls and all, in Halley Feiffer’s dark, probably autobiographical, disturbing tale of father-daughter struggles, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, now in its area premiere at GableStage.
For when you happen to be the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon satirist and playwright Jules Feiffer and you write a play about an acclaimed dramatist imparting his wisdom and bile to his stage actress (and imminent playwright) daughter, conclusion jumping about its non-fiction basis seems more than reasonable.
But autobiographical or not, the younger Feiffer has written a scorching portrait of a symbiotic relationship between mentor and protégée, parent and adoring offspring, fueled by the precarious ups and downs of theatrical fortunes. As brought to life by a loquacious, vindictive Tom Aulino and his sponge, Rebecca Behrens, under Joseph Adler’s canny direction, one need know nothing about the probable models for these characters. But, oh, how it helps.
The play opens in the roomy-by-Manhattan-standards kitchen of David Berryman (Aulino), waiting with daughter Ella (Behrens) for the reviews of her potentially breakthrough performance as Masha in a cutting-edge off-Broadway revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull. As they wait (“Nothing to be done,” intones David, evoking Beckett’s Waiting for Godot), he launches into a pre-emptive strike against those erratic, idiotic critics, to the giggling, girlish agreement of Ella.
With the aisle-sitters eviscerated, David continues his rambling, alcohol, cigarettes-and-cocaine-fueled monologue with the story of his life, from his escape from his own disapproving, abusive father, to being taken in and mentored by a revered Broadway playwright to his own ascendance to theatrical royalty. From the way Ella gushes and chimes in on punchlines, these are clearly oft-told tales. They are also the conduit by which father and daughter bond, though he can turn on a dime, switch gears and lash out at her when it suits his needs.
Curiously, since it would be a potential threat to his own bailiwick, he encourages Ella to write plays, particularly after she is barely mentioned in the Seagull review. Fast forward to five years later, when Ella is starring in a one-woman show she has written and the now estranged and stroke-infirmed David arrives at her theater with a bouquet of flowers.
The point of this extended coda is to show how much Ella has assumed the rancorous mantle of David, how she has learned well from her dad (shades of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”). It also gives Behrens the opportunity to show her fangs, which she does in a zero-to-60 transition.
Otherwise, the evening belongs to Aulino, who embraces the showy role with a bone-crunching bear hug. Throughout his beautifully modulated screed, he bounces back and forth between seeming to care about Ella’s well-being and striking out at her and the rest of the world. As he does so, his use of language offers a glimpse of what a talented writer he must have been, along with the skill of Ms. Feiffer.
The usual GableStage team of designers demonstrates its theatrical savvy, from Lyle Baskin’s sets (both real and on-stage), Ellis Tillman’s status-charting costumes and Steve Walsh’s crafty lighting.
Feiffer packs a great deal in her intermissionless 90-minute play, that rarity that we wish ran a bit longer. Chances are you will be repelled by these two characters, but you will not be able to take your eyes off of them either.
I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD, GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Through Sunday, July 8. $42-$60. 305-445-1119 or visit www.gablestage.org.