Zachary Booth, Jonathan Groff, and Cassie Beck
in Prayer for My Enemy
(© Joan Marcus)
Zachary Booth, Jonathan Groff, and Cassie Beck
in Prayer for My Enemy
(© Joan Marcus)
Craig Lucas' thoughtful and engaging new play, Prayer for My Enemy -- receiving its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of Bartlett Sher -- may not satisfy all audiences. But for those who give themselves over to the style and message of the script, it contains plenty of rewards.

The play gets off to a rough start with an opening scene that awkwardly establishes the theatrical convention of characters speaking aloud their subtextual thoughts, in addition to the actual words that they are supposedly saying. A speech by Jonathan Groff (as the show's protagonist Billy Noone) comes across as an exposition dump, filling the audience in on the back story of his childhood friendship and sexual experimentation with Tad (Zachary Booth), whom he runs into the day before he ships off to Iraq.

Once you adjust to this stylistic quirk in the script, however, it becomes a crucial way of demonstrating character relationships, and the things that individuals will and will not say in front of one another. This is particularly true of the scenes involving the rest of Billy's family, which include father Austin (Skipp Sudduth), mother Karen (Michele Pawk), and divorced sister Marianne (Cassie Beck), who ends up marrying Tad.

The play also uses the more conventional theatrical device of the direct address to the audience monologue, handled with aplomb by Victoria Clark as Dolores, a woman whose life eventually comes to intertwine with those of Billy and his family. But before that link is made clear, Clark has already regaled the audience with humorous yet poignant tales involving her fiance, city life, and caring for her dying mother.

The play addresses numerous topics from the war in Iraq to closeted homosexuality, alcoholism, mental illness, and more. But two themes stand out from the rest: the damage we are capable of doing to one another, and also the capacity for forgiveness that we can extend to those who have hurt us. The "prayer" of the play's title is literally a wish for the prosperity of those that would do us harm. It's a powerful message that evokes complex feelings, particularly in the emotional climax at the end of the play.

The ensemble cast does a fine job under Sher's crisp direction. Groff and Booth have good chemistry with one another, which makes their characters' sublimated desires believable -- particularly in a richly layered and affecting phone call that Billy makes to Tad while in Iraq. Beck has an assured and vibrant presence, fleshing out what could be a slimly written part.

Pawk does wonders with just a few words or non-verbal reactions that encapsulate her character's emotional state, while Sudduth does solid work in an oddly constructed role, in which his character's sympathetic qualities only become clear following his final appearance in the play. However, it is Clark's exquisite performance that leaves the most lasting impression -- and contributes greatly to the effectiveness of Lucas' drama.