Dina Thomas and Theodore Swetz have been through a lot together. They met at State University of New York at Binghamton, where Swetz was a theater professor and Thomas was 17 and pursuing her bachelor’s degree. Years later, they were student and teacher again at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where Thomas earned her master’s in fine arts and Swetz continued to serve as her faculty mentor. Six years ago, Swetz even gave a reading under the chuppah (a canopy) at Thomas’ wedding.
And now, 14 years after they met, the two will hurl insults at each other and share in some smoking and snorting of choice drugs for the first time.
But don’t worry — it’s all just for a play.
“We’ll have these moments where we rehearse these really intense bits, and we’ll take a break, and we’ll just go, ‘I love you, I love you,’ ” Thomas said.
Thomas and Swetz are pairing up as actors for the first time in their long history in the Unicorn Theatre’s “I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard,” opening Wednesday. Jeff Church, who is also the Coterie Theatre’s producing artistic director, directs the two in the play about ambition and relationships.
Swetz and Thomas play father and daughter: Swetz as Pulitzer-winning playwright David and Thomas as his aspiring actress daughter Ella. After opening night of Ella’s first big performance, she visits her father’s apartment to await the verdict from critics. As the reviews roll in, the two spiral into a toxic conversation about their own relationship and the struggles of the theater business.
Not meta enough for you? The show’s playwright is Halley Feiffer, an actress who is also the daughter of cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer (read into that what you will).
Whatever events the show may or may not be based on, the play certainly feels familiar for its stars and director. While Thomas and Swetz’s relationship is far healthier than the one they portray on stage, they do share similar traits with their characters simply because of their field.
“There are so many theater stories that my character tells,” Swetz said. “I have had a long, wonderful career, and I could make so many connections to so many things he was talking about.”
But he emphasizes his differences with his character, as well: “Professional theater is a place you need a lot of ego to exist in. This is a play that deals with the highest level when it comes to a New York mentality. That’s a bit of show biz that I had a taste of early in my career, and I went a different direction.”
The show still presents plenty of challenges:
Swetz compares the first half of the show to a 40-page monologue for him, as Thomas offers single-word comments in line with her character’s timidity.
The drug culture involved is also new to Swetz, and it’s actually one of the reasons he took the role.
And although the play has its comedic moments, Thomas said, the toxic relationship can drain on them as actors — and friends.
“The challenge in that has just been to continue our positive, happy, healthy relationship outside and then continue to bring truth to the kind of complicated, not-so-bright-and-shiny relationship that these characters experience,” she said.
Church loves watching them work: “It’s not so much there’s a short-hand I don’t understand but a trust and respect for each other,” he said. “There’s just no tension in that rehearsal room because they go back so far.”
Which, in a play where the actors have to quickly be comfortable screaming at each other, made it possible to skip any precious rehearsal time getting used to each other. As Thomas joked, the two had plenty of high-intensity arguments when she was his student over the years.
And while it is a lot of fun to watch other people’s messes and a challenge to embody that as actors, it hasn’t hurt their relationship at all.
“I have moments where I’m up there with him and I’m like, ‘It’s just Ted,’ ” Thomas said. “It’s like I’m up here with my dad.”
Also opening this week
Quality Hill Playhouse presents “As Time Goes By,” April 21 through May 21. The cabaret revue explores the music of World War II and the Greatest Generation, featuring songs like “The White Cliffs of Dover,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and, of course, the song that lends its name to the title of the show. See QualityHillPlayhouse.com.