Thursday, December 11, 2008

Yer Out

Prayer for My Enemy
Written by Craig Lucas
Directed by Bartlett Sher
With Jonathan Groff, Victoria Clark, Michelle Pawk, Skipp Sudduth, Cassie Beck, Zachary Booth

Performances from November 14 to December 21, 2008
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Groff and Booth in
Prayer for My Enemy
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Craig Lucas bites off more than he can chew in his new play, Prayer for My Enemy, a bitterly impassioned but relentlessly superficial exploration of how America has been gravely wounded by several years of the soon-to-be former Bush administration’s on-going War on Terror. Director Bartlett Sher gives the play an admittedly slick sheen, even if he cannot mold the playwright’s disparate strands into a satisfying whole. Six talented actors also try their best, but they’ve only been given caricatures to play rather than meaty roles to really sink their teeth into.

To his credit, Lucas never explicitly fingers the president’s disastrous policies, but the sagging spirits of a nation changed for the worse hovers over the play, which introduces a family in a New York City suburb whose son Billy (Jonathan Groff)—a member of the reserves—is leaving for Iraq, and their neighbor Dolores (whose mother has been incapacitated by a stroke), a woman whose own difficulties lead to a climax of random violence that changes everyone forever.

These damaged characters hopefully try to better their lives in any way possible. Austin (Skipp Sudduth), the emotionally distant father, is a die-hard Yankee fan caught up in the 2004 playoffs, when his beloved team made history by losing four straight to the hated Red Sox. His wife Karen (Michelle Pawk) resigns herself to avoiding any confrontation, while daughter Marianne (Cassie Beck)–divorced and with an autistic son–gets pregnant by and marries Tad, long-time close friend of her brother Billy, with whom he’s had homosexual yearnings. Dolores’ existence is punctuated by visits to her mom; on her way to see her one day, Dolores fatefully raises the ire of Austin, leading to an unlikely death and a contrived funereal finale.

The always-creative Lucas has only outlined a serious exploration of our nation’s currently fragile emotional state, failing to come through in the clutch—to borrow the lingo of his unconvincing allusions to the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry. The playwright name-checks potent issues: sons and daughters fighting in the Middle East, autism, homosexuality, alcoholism, even polyamory (which Billy and Tad briefly discuss, if you can believe that either of them would know the word, let alone its meaning). Recklessly placing them side-by-side with tired, groaning jokes about the differences between the city and the country, Lucas never fully integrates the dramatic with the comedic, with the result that it all comes out forced.

Most unwelcome is a device that reads better on the page than it plays onstage. At crucial times, someone will break the fourth wall, turn to the audience and comment on the other characters, showing feelings otherwise suppressed. In Lucas’ defense, one could make the argument that he’s written a play about people unable to convey real emotions, so he gives them other, more artistic means to do so. But these soliloquies are too wordy, too bombastic and not poetic or pregnant enough to score, which makes Prayer for My Enemy this playwright’s equivalent of that underachieving 2004 Yankee team.

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