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Prayer For My Enemy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michele Pawk, Skipp Sudduth, Zachary Booth, Cassie Beck, and Jonathan Groff.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Atoms colliding, entropy swirling, galaxies expanding - it's not a friendly universe for anyone caught in the eddies of pan-dimensional randomness. The six characters in Craig Lucas's loosely engrossing new play Prayer for My Enemy, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, learn this the hard way. They're all unwitting victims of that most unfortunate of natural forces: blind chance.

In plays as diverse as Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, and Small Tragedy, Lucas has investigated that uniquely human tendency to encounter - and in many cases even seek out - tragic uncertainty. He returns to that territory here, offering a dynamically theatrical look at how our stated and secret desires are affected by the prevailing winds of fortune. Not sure whether either Billy (Jonathan Groff) and/or his friend Tad (Zachary Booth) is gay? Just wait a few scenes to learn why that question is so inconsequential. No clue who the spiritedly whiny Dolores (Victoria Clark) is, and what her musings about her husband, her dead mother, and New York's all-consuming messiness have to do with anything? Sooner or later all the stars will align, bringing with them the expected glorious skyscapes and terrifying black holes.

If it all sounds somewhat vague, it is - and that's the point. Lucas discourages backward glances, or really introspection of any kind, as the methods we use to prevent ourselves from noticing what's in front of us: Spend too much time seeing and you won't spend enough time being. The events that make us what we are can't always be pinpointed; sometimes the daisy chain of events that creates us is invisible. When that's the case, as it is for the six characters here, the answer isn't to live according to a fixed set of rules but merely to live. So Prayer for My Enemy is one of those plays that should only be examined whole - dissecting the individual pieces will only encourage your drowning in its stream of consciousness.

Each of Lucas's individual scenes or approaches to scenes looks at the tangle of situations in a different way: some are strictly naturalistic, others philosophical or fantastical, still others internally probing along the line of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude (complete with spoken asides). Regardless what the style is, you might sometimes feel overwhelmed with information: Billy's dad Austin (Skipp Sudduth) is a recovering alcoholic with a penchant for nature documentaries, while his older sister Marianne (Cassie Beck) is the love-deprived mother of an autistic child, and his mother Karen (Michele Pawk) is a soft-spoken enabler who survives only by losing herself in other people.

Victoria Clark
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Usually just when you're sure you don't need all the details Lucas throws at you, they become their most pointed and poignant. Billy and Tad's relationship deepens following their chance meeting many years after they knew each other in school. This, in turn, is affected by Billy's deployment to Iraq (he's in the reserves) and Tad's brief fling with Marianne that quickly becomes something more. Austin, though in some way proud for his son, is scared for him, and that might be all he needs to fall off the wagon - which leads to difficulty with wheeled transport of a different kind, in which Dolores prominently features. Most of what we know about Karen is defined by what she doesn't say, in the heartbreaking final scene we learn all too well why most of the time she keeps quiet.

By the time that finale arrives, what had started off scattered, almost confused, turns profound and reminds us that the formation and dissolution of relationships and friendships, births, deaths, and everything in between, all mark a moment in history that will never come again - and will affect future moments in ways we can't begin to predict. The only thing needed to keep the goals in focus is a director who recognizes and can impart a sense of grand cosmic urgency, and Bartlett Sher - who's proven fairly adept at doing this in the more intimate emotional settings of the revivals of Awake and Sing! and South Pacific, and in the new musical The Light in the Piazza (for which Lucas wrote the libretto) - is more than up to the challenge.

He presents the characters as moons in precipitous orbits, always under the control of an otherworldly force such as "God," "gravity," or something else entirely. But his staging, often limited to small groupings confined within the tight pools of Stephen Strawbridge's lighting design, and the actors' portrayals keep everything appropriately earthbound. It has to help when the actors are talented and gripping as these: Clark is a treasure as the dotty, melancholy-caked Dolores, Pawk a captivating mistress of caressing silences and building resentments and fears into geyser-like bursts, and Groff and Sudduth appealing visions of personal untetheredness separated by a couple of decades.

As with the script itself, however, each performance means more as a function of all the others. Pawk and Clark become more vivid because of their contrast with each other, Sudduth and Booth represent two wildly different influences in Billy's still-forming adulthood, and so on. The cast and Sher all understand what Lucas has made implicit: everything is important, because everything makes a contribution - in both life and theatre. It's to the considerable credit of everyone involved in Prayer for My Enemy that it's impossible to distinguish between the two.

Prayer For My Enemy
Through December 21
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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