by Michael Bracken
If you’re looking for a primer on passive-aggressive seduction, you might want to check out The Pain of My Belligerence, at Playwrights Horizons, and focus on its only male character. Guy, played with swashbuckling brio by Hamish Linklater, is a shameless womanizer. In addition to good old-fashioned flattery, his come-on is rife with biting, shocking, and insulting language, usually followed by a “just kidding” or a vague statement that sounds like an apology but really isn’t.
On the receiving end of this bombastic barrage is Cat (played by playwright Feiffer). She sits next to Guy on a wooden bench that serves as a banquette in an empty restaurant (scenic design by Mark Wendland). She emits a sea of giggles, interrupted only by occasional offense at Guy’s calculated crudeness. But her expressions of dismay, more physical than verbal, are hardly enough to deter the train she doesn’t want to stop. She’s in for the ride. She’s buying what he’s selling.
What’s fascinating—one of the things that’s fascinating—about the scene, which takes up about half of the eighty-minute play, is its unexpected power dynamic. This is not a cat-and-mouse situation. It’s not a see-saw with one up and one down; it’s a see-saw with one in mid-air. Cat is not a victim, at least not yet; no one is twisting her arm. But Guy is a predator, even when he doesn’t have to be. He can’t help it.
And what a savvy predator he is. As he tells a very long anecdote about his wife—who’s also his business partner—and their trip to Japan, he keeps going off on tangents, which somehow lead him to a position with his lips about two inches away from Cat’s. But he never goes in for the kill. He taunts and teases until Cat can resist no more. The scene ends with a passionate kiss that she initiates.
Linklater, who kept reminding me of Raul Julia in his prime, is fantastic as Guy. Smooth as silk, he rides every wave of dialogue with the confidence of a seasoned surfer. Loud, soft, funny, grave, obnoxious, endearing: he glides from one to the other without so much as a ripple.
Feiffer, with only her nervous laugh to protect her, holds her own. Reactive on the surface and almost one-note in her delivery, she’s firmly planted in her character, who’s enjoying Guy’s attention and is eager for more. The paleness of her white skin and almost platinum hair are accentuated by her black print dress and black leggings (costume design by Paloma Young). She looks (and, we later find out, is) frail, but there’s fire there.
Feiffer says the drama “aims to explore the corrosive effects of the patriarchy on men and women alike.” I can’t honestly say that was my instinctive reaction, but the corrosion is there if you look for it. As delightful as Linklater is as Guy, he’s ultimately little more than an empty suit. Cat, to a large extent, is the architect of her own muddled deconstruction, notwithstanding the ravages of Lyme disease she must endure. Guy’s wife, Yuki (a sophisticated and perfectly modulated Vanessa Kai), the culinary clout behind their chain of high-end ramen restaurants, must forgo the notion of a reasonably faithful husband for the reality of a philandering friend who confesses his many affairs to her.
The Pain of My Belligerence has a simple structure (Cat meets Guy; Cat is Guy’s mistress; Cat visits Yuki) and wonderful flow. Some steamy sex as well. Director Trip Cullman is in sync with its rhythms and keeps it on course with a steady stream of unforced energy. Feiffer’s work has more substance than is initially evident. Cat often seems like a flighty heroine, yet she works her way through some thorny challenges. She, like the play, is not easily dismissed.
The Pain of My Belligerence. Through May 12 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater/Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). 80 minutes, no intermission. www.playwrightshorizons.org
Photos: Joan Marcus