By Halley Feiffer; Directed by Trip Cullman
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 5.12.19
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
by Lexi Orphanos on 4.22.19
Halley Feiffer and Hamish Linklater in The Pain of My Belligerence. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: In the 8 years spanning our past two election cycles, a self-sabotaging woman is victimized by both the patriarchy and a dumpster-fire relationship.
Election Day 2012—Cat (Halley Feiffer), a smart, albeit boring, journalist, meets with Guy (Hamish Linklater). Cat has recently interviewed Yuki (Vanessa Kai), his wife and business partner, for a piece on her successful restaurant franchise “Shizukesa.” Yet the married-with-two-kids Guy has become infatuated with Cat and oozes confidence and misogyny from the top of the date, literally inserting his own erection into the conversation. Things quickly escalate as Guy sucks a deer tick out of her neck, spits it on the table, and then voluntarily describes himself as “evil,” “a sociopath,” and “a serial killer.” Regardless of these red flags and cringe-worthy interruptions of “god, you’re pretty,” Cat goes in for the kiss. By Election Day 2016 (the very next scene), Guy and Cat are still together, and the “feisty” but sweet Cat is now letting her claws come out.
But the problematic nature of this relationship is not the chief focus of the play. Cat has deeper problems—she is so sick that she can’t work or leave her apartment, and refuses to lean on others for help. By the third and final scene (set in 2020), Cat’s own belligerence has come to consume her whole life, leaving her sicker and more confused than her younger self could have ever imagined. Indeed, the audience incubates in this gross, darkly comical world with her; you’ll want to grab and shake the characters to please, dear god, save themselves.
The toxic, trite relationship offers little to make either character likable. A lack of “spark” becomes a key factor, as both Cat and Guy seem perpetually on the brink of killing each other, before then comically stumbling their way through foreplay. In one instance, Cat becomes enraged while viewing live footage of Trump winning the 2016 election. In a flash, she proceeds to engage in graphic, fully nude sex with Guy. In this way, The Pain of My Belligerence's jarring rejoinder to the patriarchy comes via confused portrayals of onstage sex that ultimately do not serve the story, or a modern audience. And it's worth noting that director Trip Cullman did not bring on an intimacy director, someone who might have helped the actors (and the audience) navigate these sensitive moments. It is hard not to feel confused by the gratuitous nature of such graphic scenes, ones that ironically make the performance feel less intimate.
Also interesting is that the playbills, which contain reading material that could enhance one’s approach to the show, are given out after the performance. In one article, playwright and star Feiffer explains the real-life events that influence this semi-autobiographical piece: “Instead of quenching my emotional thirst, my misguided pursuit of intimacy left me parched: emotionally dehydrated in just the same way my body felt in the throes of a flare up” (full article here). This insight offered by the playwright, coupled with thoughts from Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Tim Sanford, sheds greater light on the goal of this piece, and the catharsis that we can only hope Feiffer has found in its performance: “Cat [Feiffer] decries no one’s belligerence but her own. And it gives her no righteous satisfaction. It gives her pain, but perhaps also a measure of pleasure and freedom in naming it.” The Pain of My Belligerence is not being staged as a commentary on all women; this is an exploration of the crippling presence of the patriarchy that drives one woman farther from her own needs, and closer to her own death. If only this exploration were done primarily for the benefit of the audience.
(The Pain of My Belligerence plays at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, through May 12, 2019. The running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30; and Sundays at 2 and 7. Tickets start at $49 and are available at playwrightshorizons.org or by calling 212-279-4200.)
The Pain of My Belligerence is by Halley Feiffer. Directed by Trip Cullman. Scenic Design by Mark Wendland. Costume Design by Paloma Young. Lighting Design by Ben Stanton. Original Music and Sound Design by Elizabeth Ittoop. Production Stage Manager is Katie Ailinger.
The cast is Halley Feiffer, Vanessa Kai, Hamish Linklater, and Keira Belle Young.