Another Disfunctional Family Play

prayer-enemyThe new play Prayer for My Enemy, now playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon, involves some distinguished theater people. It is written by Craig Lucas, author of Prelude to a Kiss, among many other plays, and also librettist for the musical The Light in the Piazza. It is directed by Bartlett Sher, who won a Tony for his exceptional work in the current revival of South Pacific and also received considerable praise for his direction of Piazza as well as the revival of Odets’s Awake and Sing. And the play stars Tony winners Victoria Clark (Piazza) and Michelle Pawk, as well as Tony nominee Jonathan Groff, who burst onto the scene with his fine performance as Melchior in the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening. But it takes more than the pedigree of the creators to make for a totally successful and satisfying theater work, and Prayer for My Enemy doesn’t completely work.

Lucas’s play takes place in 2003 and 2004; it is about an upstate New York family in which the son, Billy, played by Groff, who is struggling with his sexuality, goes off to fight in Iraq. The play begins just before Billy is about to leave for Iraq, includes a telephone conversation while Billy is in Iraq, then shows him returning home due to an injury and reuniting with his family. The family, like so many, has its warts and issues, which crop up as the play goes on. There are, of course, relationship problems, and much of it is played out against the backdrop of baseball, in particular the Yankee-Red Sox ALCS playoff series that took place both of those years. Then there is Clark’s character, Dolores. In between some of the family scenes, Dolores comes onstage and delivers a series of monologues, expressing her growing frustration with her situation, including caring for her ailing mother and dealing with her fiancé, who stays put in New York City while Dolores is in upstate New York because of her mother. Other than the fact that she frequents the deli owned by the family, there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between Dolores and the rest of the characters. But, as the play nears its conclusion, there is a dramatic twist that results in Dolores intersecting and becoming involved with the family.

In Prayer for My Enemy, Lucas seems to be touching on a number of themes and motifs: sexuality, relationships, family, faith, violence, forgiveness, war, and probably a few more things that I didn’t totally pick up. This proves to be both good and bad. On the one hand, Prayer can be thought provoking, and I did find myself after the show eager to read an interview with Lucas and to think more about the play. But I don’t believe Lucas totally clarifies or resolves these issues. That can be okay -- plenty of theater and movies have been quite effective and powerful in spite of some ambiguity. I found myself wanting at least a little more insight or depth in the exploration of some of the issues, instead of skimming the surface of so many differing motifs in a very non-judgmental fashion, which is what we actually get. Perhaps Lucas tried to do a bit too much with this play, and maybe he should have narrowed his focus. Some of the themes, such as Billy’s struggles with his sexuality and his feelings for his childhood friend who, in the course of the play, becomes his sister’s husband, play better than others.

And a viewer might tolerate some of the ambiguity or lack of resolution if the play itself compensated for that by being more dramatically compelling. I certainly wasn’t bored by Prayer for My Enemy, but I wasn’t riveted or totally involved either. There isn’t a lot of humor, and the play doesn’t have the kind of big laughs that could help it overcome some of its problems, or are such a major part of a very different family melodrama, August: Osage County, which has had such a successful and award-winning run on Broadway.

While Prayer may not be totally effective as a play, it does offer some superb performances. Victoria Clark is more known for her work in musicals, but she is just terrific and often dazzling in this play. In her monologues, she brings out all her character’s pent-up anger, frustration, and isolation. When events bring her into a collision course with the family, she has some effective and even moving moments. Jonathan Groff also continues to show that he is an actor with real talent. His work as the confused, gentle, sweet Billy shows enormous sensitivity and expressiveness. The rest of the cast does fine work, with Skipp Sudduth making a particularly strong impression as the bipolar, recovering-alcoholic father, who has uneasy relations with both his son and daughter, while never giving up on his beloved New York Yankees.

Ultimately, I wanted more from Prayer for My Enemy, and I think it comes up a bit short as a play, never becoming the effective and dramatically compelling piece we might have hoped for. But the performances are first rate, and the play itself isn’t without its moments and some intriguing fascinations. - James Miller

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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