Lives Led Astray

In his new, ambitious play, Prayer for My Enemy, Craig Lucas has employed an obsolete tradition, the aside, to such an extent that it seems an innovation: characters speak to each other, but then in soliloquy reveal their inner thoughts, which are often the opposite of what they’ve said. It’s a dramatic tactic that proves initially fruitful in Bartlett Sher’s production, as it draws and keeps one’s interest, but eventually it wears thin, and at times it proves confusing. Prayer feels like an overstuffed dysfunctional family drama, which it is. Lucas touches on homosexual love, the war in Iraq, betrayal, guilt, and the alienation of modern society with its attendant mental stresses, but he also has bigger big fish to fry. When a young husband named Tad looks at the stars and reflects to his wife on their luck, one gets an inkling of the wider picture: “if it could be any little slice of time, any eighty-year slice in all that time, what are the odds that it would be this slice of time that we happen to be alive in…” That sense of universality calls to mind the sweep of Thornton Wilder in The Skin of Our Teeth. It recurs in a late monologue by the spirit of a dying character trying to communicate eternal verities to his descendants: “Charity. Civility. Sacrifice. Contemplation. Don’t smirk; all wisdom is plagiarism, only stupidity is original. These are pillars of human history.”

Lucas doesn’t share Wilder’s propensity for optimism, however. The characters here strain to keep their sanity, and the cautionary words from the dying are never heard nor affirmed by the living. American society at peace, Lucas shows, has just as many angry, ruthless and destructive inhabitants as Iraq—in fact, based on the sample he presents, probably more. And one of the root causes is a failure to tell the truth, to utter the words one actually thinks.

It’s a grim world in which people go through hell and put others through it, and the strife is not only physical but emotional. Says Victoria Clark’s Dolores, a woman whose mother has had a stroke and whose lover wants her to live in Manhattan: “Charles, my fiancé, loves all that frenzy. To me it’s only long shrieks of rage, the fury of so many people’s resentment and frustration and, well, they’ve been put in a space too small for so many, a big filthy loud dangerous ugly unsanitary uncivil and foul-smelling cage.” The burden of her mother on her now is, she says, “payback for all the wretched things I put her and dad through.” Yet she is also used by Charles, and eventually her disintegration becomes a key element of the drama.

Certainly the damage inflicted on Lucas’s hero, Billy (Jonathan Groff), is extensive. Billy is a young veteran of the Iraq war who is home on leave. His father, Austin (Skip Sudduth, a bit too much of a caricature), is bipolar and has a history of emotionally abusing his family, especially Billy, whom he has often belittled as homosexual, though Billy has outwardly done everything to negate that opinion, including enlistment. Nevertheless, Billy is gay, and when he runs into Tad (Zachary Booth), a boyhood friend on whom he had a deep crush, he is elated. Discovering that Tad has been married dampens his hopes a bit, but the audience, hearing Tad’s inner thoughts, learns that Tad has always harbored a love for Billy. There’s much in Billy's situation to suggest that Lucas, who is openly gay, is writing, in a sense, about the destructive repercussions of not expressing one's true nature, of withholding one's true feelings from others—in short, of being in the closet.

Tad, however, begins to court and eventually marries Billy’s sister, Marianne (a marvelously caustic and exasperated Cassie Beck). The bullying Austin is on the wagon after a history of alcoholism that has alienated Marianne almost completely. He is able to be softened only by Billy’s mother, Karen: a frowzy, often belittled peacemaker in the expert hands of Michele Pawk.

The outstanding Clark, however, has no scenes with the others for a long time, though her travails and festering umbrage at them provide comic relief to the tensions of Billy’s family. It’s not easy performing solo, but Clark is the glue that keeps the viewer interested. What is she doing there? How is she connected to all the others? Once the link is made, it packs a wallop. However, the play loses steam after that, and the overall demands it makes on its audience in sorting out thoughts from speech become exhausting. It is, nevertheless, a fascinating, if flawed work.

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