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The Pain of My Belligerence

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - April 22, 2019

Halley Feiffer and Hamish Linklater
Photo by Joan Marcus

"I'm joking." "I'm joking." "I'm joking." How many times in Halley Feiffer's The Pain of My Belligerence does somebody say, "I'm joking," on the heels of a joke that isn't funny? Usually it's the too symbolically named Guy (Hamish Linklater), and usually he's smoothing over something outrageous, vindictive, or inappropriate he's said, and it's hard to tell if he was really joking. He gets away with it, though, because he's Guy, and a guy. When Cat (Feiffer) tries the same tack, she's less successful. And therein lies Feiffer's unarguable, but not consistently engaging, thesis.

Feiffer, daughter of fabled cartoonist/humorist Jules, specializes in uncomfortable dark comedies that navigate sexual politics and tote unwieldy titles: How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Center of New York City. What The Pain of My Belligerence means I have no idea, but it's perhaps her most personal play, one that combines real-life experiences with provocative fictions and exposes her further by casting her in the lead. It's a brave effort, and I wish I liked it more. A look at bad relationships and the social structures that prop them up, it's marked by a) an unlikely and needless symmetry, setting each of its three scenes on the election eves of 2012, 2016, and 2020, and b) containing virtually nonstop awful behavior by three of its characters, sweetened at the end by the brief introduction of a more benign fourth.

We begin in an upscale restaurant, designed by Guy; Mark Wendland's attractive all-wood set, later depicting a bedroom and living room, suggests a cage, as in the cages we all build around ourselves through acceptance of societal norms. Cat's a New Yorker writer who's just interviewed Guy's wife, Yuki (Vanessa Kai), who conceived and owns the restaurant, one in a successful chain, and Guy's regaling Cat with rude stories about Yuki, all in the course of what even Cat describes as a "first date." What are these two people doing? Considering that he's married and a father and she knows it, their flirting is off the charts, and so are Guy's obvious mendacity, sense of entitlement, and confidence in his own irresistibleness. Linklater's a charming actor, and he ably conveys all of this, but Guy's a jerk, and we see it so clearly that we simultaneously wonder why Cat can't. She giggles at everything he says, and she's plainly enraptured by his toxic masculinity. We know they're going to Do It, and when that happens, in the next scene, it's explicit and repeated — in a staging by Trip Cullman that at one point features a nude Feiffer posed like a hood ornament, held up by Guy and spread-eagle in the air.

Vanessa Kai
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's typical of Feiffer's too-neatness that the first scene contains Guy picking a tick off Cat's skin. What a coincidence that this happens at this moment and place, for next thing we know it's exactly four years later and Guy is visiting Cat at her apartment, where Lyme disease has left her homebound. She's a vulnerable, incapacitated mess, and he's his usual jerk self, though it's evident there's a kind of love going on between them, the kind that veers recklessly from "I love you" to "I hate you" and back again within minutes. Unruly emotions, carrying us to places we don't want to go, uncontrollable despite our mental awareness of the damage they inflict — such is Feiffer's terrain. Cat and Guy go through an argue-support-joke-screw-argue again cycle without pausing for breath, and while Cullman's direction zeroes in precisely on what this couple — so wrong for each other, and so wrong in the larger sense — is feeling, it can be painful to watch.

It's a relief to get away from Guy in the next scene, though what eliminates him from the action (no spoilers here) smacks of theatrical contrivance. It's conveniently election eve 2020, and Cat, now in a wheelchair, is well enough to venture out and interview Yuki again. Kai, in sumptuous costume by Paloma Young, makes a meal of Yuki's poised, treacherous manipulation of the moment. This superachiever, whom Guy had characterized as socially inept and emotionally unstable, has really gotten her act together. She's also expertly mothering two girls, one of whom, Olive (Keira Belle Young), wanders in and provides a welcome note of innocence among so much destructive adult behavior. And that's where we end, after 80 minutes that feel longer.

In a season where practically every new play seems to be about race, gay, or #MeToo, The Pain of My Belligerence falls into the latter category — and how, is it ever white and hetero. Not neatly or precisely, though. Feiffer, to her credit, isn't entirely blaming society for the sexual conventions that motivate women to place so much — too much — weight on male regard. Cat, at first a smart, capable, independent player, becomes submissive not just because the world tells her to, but due to personal physical misfortune, and something more personal still, an insecurity that springs not from gender but from self. Feiffer is valiant to explore it onstage, and in doing so brings along some pertinent observations about, as her revealing program note says, "how a woman who considered herself confident and powerful could find herself seduced into her own subjugation to the point that she barely recognized herself. How this happens to so many women." The Pain of My Belligerence succeeds at illustrating that, but be advised, witnessing it doesn't necessarily constitute a fun night out.

The Pain of My Belligerence
Through May 12
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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