2015 – The New York Times
January 22, 2015
Betty Gilpin and Halley Feiffer suspect they must have crossed paths as infants, lolling in some green room or other. The actor Reed Birney has told them he remembers them as little girls. Ms. Gilpin, 28, and Ms. Feiffer, 30, grew up belonging to the same hothouse subculture: the children of theater people.
“Halley and I both spent a lot of time in stage managers’ booths with pacifiers in our mouths,” said Ms. Gilpin, who went on to act herself (TV’s “Nurse Jackie,” Off Broadway’s “Where We’re Born”). The daughter of the actors Jack Gilpin and Ann McDonough, she never considered any other career — “and my parents begged me to,” she said.
Ms. Feiffer also went on to act — and write. Her obsidian-dark comic drama “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” which opened on Tuesday at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2, is set in the world of artists and their children, where talent is only one component of legacy.
Ms. Gilpin portrays Ella, an obscure 20-something actress whose father (played by Mr. Birney) is an esteemed Broadway playwright. Ella worships him, but his love for her is tinged with contempt. He razzes her for even suggesting she might become anything but an artist. All he ever wanted was to be famous, and he pushes her hard to want that, too.
“I’m so interested in fame,” Ms. Feiffer said the other evening in a tiny office on Delancey Street, where she writes for “The One Percent,” a coming Starz television series by the creators of the movie “Birdman.” “This is something so many people, especially in this industry, are grasping for, and yet I don’t know one person who it’s ever made happy and filled the hole within them. It’s a drug.”
The daughter of the cartoonist, playwright and screenwriter Jules Feiffer and the monologuist Jenny Allen (“I Got Sick Then I Got Better”), Ms. Feiffer was 12 when she got an agent and started auditioning for acting roles. By the time she was in high school at Horace Mann, she had taken up playwriting, too.
She and Ms. Gilpin got to be friends several years ago, when they kept running into each other at auditions. “We had done a couple of pilot seasons in L.A. together,” Ms. Feiffer recalled. “We bonded over how fish-out-of-watery we felt there.”
But it was Ms. Gilpin’s performance in Lucy Thurber’s “Where We’re Born,” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in 2013, that persuaded Ms. Feiffer to send her the script for “I’m Gonna Pray,” which the actress calls “an impassioned letter” to the theater.
“She really, really nails the simultaneous extreme narcissism and bottomless self-loathing that are hand-in-hand in most artists,” Ms. Gilpin said. “One moment we could be like, ‘I’m the worst actor in the world, I should leave the business, I’m terrible — but if I were to win an Oscar, what would I say? And what should I wear?’ ”
In “I’m Gonna Pray,” Ella serves at first largely as a bolster to her father’s enormous ego and as a target for his vicious flashes of temper. Their late-night drinking-and-drugging binge in the family’s Upper West Side kitchen is a poisonous bonding ritual, filled with envy of their rivals and lust for acclaim. In the second section, five years later, there has been a rift between father and daughter; Ella’s life is in a starkly different state.
“I think you sort of have a love affair, a lot of girls do, with your dad,” Ms. Feiffer said. “And then something happens, like it does in the play, where it’s almost like a breakup or something.”
The play’s setup tantalizes with echoes of real life, but Ms. Feiffer said her script is a what-if: a version of what her life might have been “in some other, horrible, alternate, demented, warped, nightmarish reality.” The autobiography is in the emotions — like “the feeling when I was younger that I have to be successful or my life is nothing.”
“Hopefully, I wasn’t really like Ella, but like Ella divided by 7,000,” she said.
Neil Pepe, Atlantic’s artistic director, nonetheless senses echoes between Ms. Feiffer’s work and her life. “To what extent this play is based on her relationship with her dad, to what extent it’s not — maybe it’s somewhere in between — there’s no question there’s resonance,” he said.
The family resemblance shows up in the fearlessness of Ms. Feiffer’s writing, he added: “I’m even thinking of Jules Feiffer’s work like ‘Carnal Knowledge.’ You look at that film and you think, ‘That’s a pretty brutal, honest film about men going after women. He doesn’t pull punches.’ ”
Ms. Feiffer stopped drinking six years ago, and since then alcoholism has been a theme in her work, including her 2013 play “How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them.” In the 2013 movie “He’s Way More Famous Than You,” which she wrote with Ryan Spahn, she stars as an alcoholic actress named Halley Feiffer, who makes a movie about her family called “Capturing the Feiffers.” (She also kidnaps Ben Stiller: a fairly clear signal that this is not a documentary.)
Part of the impetus for writing the new play was to show the flip side of growing up with successful parents. “It’s not always what it looks like,” she said. “I don’t think anyone’s life is what you think it is.”
Still, she does credit her own parents with giving her confidence in her ability to do anything she wants as an artist.
And neither the father nor the daughter in the play is a monster, she said; both are victims, and both are culpable.
“I’ve added in lines for the father where he says: ‘I love being a father. I had no idea I’d love it so much.’ And I think that’s really true for him. Everything he does is to help her,” she said. “It might be misguided, and it might not be actually in the long run very helpful, to put it mildly, but he’s really working with the best tools he has. He just wasn’t given a full set of tools.”
For Ms. Gilpin, the “Halleyness of the writing” has posed an unusual, and welcome, acting challenge — “going as high in orgasmic ecstasy as you can go and then plummeting to the bottom of your depression in this deep, dark well — and then you’re up again.”
“I spent a lot of time in college studying theater of the absurd and Beckett and Genet, and then I spent a lot of time after that at ‘Gossip Girl’ auditions, thinking, ‘Wow, I really wasted my money,’ ” she said. “But now I think about that stuff all the time.”