Prayer for My Enemy
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
December 3, 2008
Set in a suburb outside of New York City in 2003, Craig Lucas's new play, Prayer For My Enemy, begins with two young men, Tad and Billy, at a gas station on the verge of having a you-tailgated-me! brawl when they realize they are childhood friends. Suddenly, in a rush of emotion, Billy recounts how they fooled around as adolescents, maintaining he is straight, but admitting that Tad was his first love. Tad does not hear this, however. Rather like a Shakespearean aside, this flash of insight into a character's mind—or what Lucas calls "the psychic interior"—occurs throughout the play and illuminates not so much reliable information or static truths, but more the psychological weather of a character at a particular moment in time.
What fascinates me most about Craig Lucas is that he has no gimmick, no tricks up his sleeve—he's not even aspiring to be one step ahead of his audience. In fact, he remains resolutely a few steps behind, examining what we—preoccupied with our own velocity—have overlooked, taken for granted, or dismissed. He listens past our cocktail chatter, our gripes, our generic aspirations towards self-improvement to hear what George Eliot called "that roar which lies on the other side of silence." It is this extraordinary ability that makes him our most fearless and innovative playwright.
But do not go see his new play, Prayer For My Enemy, because it is a Serious Work of Art by a Serious Playwright. Go see Prayer For My Enemy because you will at times bark with laughter, at times be stunned to silence, and all the while find yourself hanging on every eerily familiar word uttered by these vivid characters, more captured than written.
Billy's leaving to serve in Iraq the next day and they're having a Bon Voyage barbeque for him in the backyard. Tad drops by and quickly falls into the Noone family dynamics—part hammock, part web—an irresistible lure. Dad Austin is at the grill making uncomfortably portentous jokes about how for the past six years he's staved off the alcoholism that wants him dead; mom Karen dispenses paper plates and reassuring pleasantries as she stifles her rage at her son's bewildering decision; and sis Marianne bemoans her father's oppressive generosity of wisdom, and wonders if Tad is, in fact, showing romantic interest in her. Apart from them all is Dolores—an amiable middle-aged woman living nearby who is trying to strike a balance between her prosaic existence outside of the city taking care of her ailing mother and her less-than-romantic seven-year relationship with Charles, a psychiatrist, who will not budge from the socially toxic isle of Manhattan. Lucas splits focus between scenes of Noone family life and scenes of Dolores alone, until the two well-meaning worlds shockingly collide.
Having assembled a superb ensemble of actors and designers who each share a talent for subtlety and suggestion, Bartlett Sher has put Prayer For My Enemy on the stage flawlessly. From Skipp Sudduth's Austin, a helpless bully, to Michelle Pawk's Karen, whose desperate eyes will not budge from some vague vision of a better time ahead, to Cassie Beck's Marianne who, with frayed dignity, struggles against her formidable insecurities, the Noone family exudes a palpable love, which makes the suffering they cause one another feel painfully inevitable.
As Tad, Zachary Booth is a sweet (almost unnervingly unflappable) wanderer, while Billy, richly embodied by Jonathan Groff, has a Messianic streak, that both galvanizes him and isolates him from the rest of the world. Their ambivalently romantic friendship is engrossing; it's as though they seem to be hearing a love song, but cannot discern the words. And finally there is the role of the gentle-souled Dolores which, in the expert hands of Victoria Clark, is a comic tour-de-force that turns tragic on a dime, for even people who are trying their best end up with blood on their hands.
With almost imperceptible minimalism, set designer John McDermott and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge depict a sort of gorgeous suburban no-man's-land that is by turns expansive and claustrophobic, a perfect canvas for Prayer For My Enemy which is more than a play that you watch, it's a world you inhabit. Craig Lucas puts us humans back into nature, amidst everything that thwarts our lofty attempts to love our neighbors as ourselves: the unnamable desires we dismiss, the shocking instincts we have to survive, and the seemingly innocuous trains of thought that shuttle by to reveal unseen tracks.