Don’t be misled by the title. Halley Feiffer’s “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard” has nothing to do with faith ... unless, of course, you make your ego your religion.
Which is precisely the situation unfolding on the Unicorn Theatre’s Jerome Stage, where co-stars Dina Thomas and Theodore Swetz are engaged in an actorly version of harrowing hand-to-hand combat.
This two-scene black comedy (or is it a lacerating family drama?) opens in the Manhattan apartment of David (Swetz), a Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright.
We find David on a rant about theater critics — jealous men with micropenises, he says — while his daughter Ella (Thomas) hangs on his every word.
Fueled by glass after glass of white wine (with pot and cocaine chasers as the evening progresses), the seventy-something David is on a stream-of-consciousness roll, regaling his daughter with stories from his youth (his bullying father, the Broadway playwright who took him on as a protege) and plenty of observations about life and art.
We come to understand that Ella is appearing in an Off-Broadway production of Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull.” She’s come from opening night at to await the reviews in the nurturing environment of home.
It quickly becomes clear that Ella is basically a prop for her father’s gasbag raving. She laughs (unconvincingly) at his venomous eruptions aimed at anyone he finds intellectually inferior (i.e., everyone). She feeds him leading questions, even though she’s heard his stories a million times already.
She’s Smithers to his Mr. Burns.
Heaven help her if she interrupts at the wrong moment. Papa will hit her with a savage putdown, leaving Ella tearfully/fearfully begging to get back into his good graces.
She’s his verbal punching bag, unassertive and timid. Even her baggy, shapeless clothing suggests a woman with no sense of self.
Her father maintains that she’s smart and talented and should write her own play. Does David really believe that? Or is he simply unwilling to accept that his own offspring could be so, well, average?
The play’s second scene takes place five years later backstage at a theater where Ella has just opened her one-woman play. She’s pretty much unrecognizable as the frump from the first scene. Now she’s dolled up in green sequin mini-dress and stiletto heels.
Whereas the first scene was practically a monologue for David, this one is all about Ella. Between slugs of wine she fields calls on her cell phone; with a shock we realize that the way she talks, her phrasing and cadences, is a direct copy of David’s cynical, bullish manner.
She’s become her old man.
Speaking of which, a feeble David shows up with a bouquet of flowers for the daughter who hasn’t talked to him in years. A stroke has left him a different man — less pride, more compassion — but is he too late to win back Ella’s affections?
Watching Swetz and Thomas dive into this material is breathtaking. Under Jeff Church’s direction they deliver performances of terrific theatricality. At times they’re better than the material.
“I’m Gonna Pray...” has plenty of bite and, in its final moments, even a bit of pity. But it’s more a fascinating clinical dissection of a relationship than an emotionally engaging effort.
Still, knowing that the playwright is the daughter of Jules Feiffer, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, playwright and author, gives the piece a meta kick ... how much of the play is autobiographical?
Maybe it’s better to be left guessing.
“I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard” continues through May 14 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. See unicorntheatre.org or call 816-531-7529.