A Prayer For My Daughter
Young Vic Theatre January-March 2008
This 1978 drama by the American writer Thomas Babe is about men under pressure. It has things to tell us about their strengths and weaknesses, about the way they relate to each other, and about how much or little they know about themselves.
It doesn't have a lot to say on these subjects, and little of what it says is news, so you may have the feeling while watching it of waiting in vain for the play to actually start - to get past the preliminaries to something original.
We're in a New York City police station, where two cops (older and younger, naturally) have brought in two crooks (ditto) involved in a robbery-murder. The task ahead is to find out which one pulled the trigger.
And so, as the cops take turns interrogating, we get pairings and interactions in every permutation, and learn more about each man.
The older cop has a suicidal daughter with whom he can't cope, preferring to stay here rather than rush to her aid in a crisis. The younger cop is smarter than he seems but full of insecurities.
The older crook is a loser who has developed an almost Zen-like distance from the whole process, and even the drug-addled kid has a startling sensitivity to the emotional states of the others.
And so we learn that everybody has his strong points and weak points, that none of them is ever fully confident or at ease, that they are capable of surprising moments of empathy as well as harsh cruelty, and that as men they have trouble expressing or even admitting their feelings.
See what I mean about there being no news here? You keep waiting for something beyond cliché, for some breakthrough to fresh insight or even some originality of characterisation (That philosophical crook is the closest we get), but it doesn't come.
And it's not just that the play is thirty years old. David Mamet's American Buffalo, written three years earlier, tells us more about male psychology and interaction than this play does.
Which may explain why Babe's play has such an old-fashioned feel about it. It really has more in common with Sydney Kingsley's 1948 Detective Story, a police procedural with the then-startling news that the police might be no more mentally and emotionally stable than the people they arrested.
To be fair, Babe has a good ear for dialogue, and there are passages of rough poetry and insights into the masculine use of obscenity both to express and to hide feelings that rise to the level of the master Mamet.
And he provides four solid roles for actors to sink their teeth into. Matthew Marsh has the meatiest plate as the older cop, but Corey Johnson (young cop) Sean Chapman (older crook) and Colin Morgan (young crook) are all first-rate.
It is just a shame that the playwright didn't give them or director Dominic Hill more of a play to serve with their talent and effort.
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Review of A Prayer For My Daughter - Young Vic Theatre 2008