Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
Craig Lucas has a gift for writing about the pain of broken human relationships, and the ways in which our inability to communicate with one another allows our definition and understanding of those relationships to become distorted and perverse. In his new play, "Prayer For My Enemy" he takes us inside the familiar terrain of a dysfunctional American family, but he does it with a very sophisticated dramaturgy. He uses techniques that allow us to hear the interior dialogue of characters and the often screamed, if unspoken, pleas and demands they make on each another. For all the crude and inarticulate language these people use, there is also a beautiful lyricism in the text, and as much as anyone else now writing, Lucas seems to be a natural successor to Tennessee Williams, our great stage poet of the unloved heart.
As adolescents, Billy and Tad are best friends, pals who also have an unexpressed sexual attraction. In the opening moments of the play they re-connect, now in their mid-twenties, with Billy about to leave for his first tour of duty to Iraq, and Tad now married to Billy's sister, Marianne. Tad also assumes responsibility toward Marianne's autistic son, Tony This chance meeting occasions a re-connection with Billy's parents, Austin and Karen, whose lives are a struggle against alcohol and meaninglessness, battles which both are condemned to repeatedly lose in ways both large and small. Austin is a Viet Nam vet entombed in watching baseball on TV and imagining a domestic life that might in any way be considered successful. His wife, Karen, is one of those women who can only prove her existence by the evidence of what she does in attempting to satisfy the physical needs of others in her life. Finally, there is Dolores, a caregiver who gives us a brilliant set of presentational monologues that define her frustration and resentment, and also prepare us for an entirely unexpected and awful connection she'll have with the family.
Craig Lucas in incredibly fortunate to have the connection he has with Bartlett Sher, a superb director who seems perfectly in tune with every sound, gesture, rhythm and nuance of this playwright's work. They each enhance the other's strengths. In this production, that strength for both of them is an understanding of how the power of unadorned theatrical imagination allows the audience the flexibility to move inside and outside characters and to describe for us their lives both in action and in self-perception. That's critical for this group of individuals who simultaneously know themselves too well, deceive themselves too much, know each other far too little, and rarely understand what they believe they know. Beneath what could be a simple comedy of misperception is such genuine pain and need for connection that it is only amusing at the same time that it's heartbreaking.
James McMenamin plays the insubstantial, drug-using Tad as that all-too-familiar type, the guy who's reluctant to face his adult responsibilities, but more fundamentally as a man reluctant to even claim his own life. Chelsey Rives does a nice job of playing the well-meaning, ordinary woman married to this accidental father and emotionally vacuous place-holder. Certainly the example of her parents, with the absent Austin (the fine John Procaccino) and the repressed Karen (Cynthia Lauren Tewes) makes the prospect of married life seem rather like a dungeon filled with invisible chains and the unheard moans of the hopelessly captive. Daniel Zaitchik was excellent as Billy, whose sexual insecurity leads him to "be a man" and go into combat in hopes of making his father even a little proud of him, in hopes of being admired just once, just a little. No chance. For me, the standout performance was Kimberly King as the caregiver, Delores. Her several monologues were brilliant, incisive and engaging and convincingly authentic. When the dramatic action finally brings her into the family circle, we have already been given such a strong foundation that her situational irony and tragi-comic discomfort is rich and delicious. Her character's themes of why and how we care for others, and what that means to our own lives were central to holding the whole play together.
"Prayer For My Enemy" is an ambitious and rather demanding play, asking the audience to infer a great deal about a story in which both text and sub-text is spoken. It seems a little too familiar at times, the motivations at least superficially too obvious, and that makes elements of the story and the characters seem more trite than they are. Lives that are inconsequential are not necessarily unimportant or uninteresting. Craig Lucas has a particular genius for making them matter to us by revealing them in dramatic action which is both mundane and extraordinary. Both he and Mr. Sher also fully command that particular power of live theatre, the involvement of the audience in the creation of an imaginary reality, to bring power and meaning to the character's actions, and insight to ours. That's about all I could ask from an evening of drama.