By Samuel L. Leiter
There’s pain aplenty in The Pain of My Belligerence, Halley Feiffer’s new comedy-drama at Playwrights Horizons but it could sure use a jolt of belligerence. Feiffer (How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them), a better comic actress than she is a serious one, plays Cat, a New Yorker profile writer, in a piece obliquely inspired by her own experiences.
Structured over an intermissionless 80-minutes in three acts, each set on the eve of a presidential election—2012, 2016, and 2020—it’s the story of an attractive, well-educated woman in her 30s with a self-destructive emotional neediness. Her hunger for male approval draws her to the self-involved Guy (Hamish Linklater, Seminar), in his 40s, who gives off Patrick Bateman-like vibes (the non-homicidal kind) from which any normal woman would have bolted in five minutes.
We meet him when he and Cat are on a first date at the upscale Japanese restaurant he founded and, with the input of his beautiful, brilliant Japanese wife and partner, Yuki (Vanessa Kai, KPOP)—mother of his two kids—turned into a sensation with offshoots in Japan. Although not translated, the place is called Shizukesa, meaning “calmness, composure,” the complete absence of which defines Guy’s personality.
Cat’s career made a big step forward when she did a piece on Yuki but she nonetheless is having dinner with Yuki’s husband, whose obnoxiously aggressive charm involves not only his braggadocio about his entrepreneurial genius, but his complimenting her on her looks and laugh, his love-bite lunges, his offensive comments (which he dismisses as jokes), and the arsenal of mind games he launches while crunching asparagus spears. This is a guy, in fact, who thinks it’s cute to call himself “profoundly mentally ill.”
Cat shows signs of wariness but, whenever he approaches for a lip licking you can feel her hunger to swallow him whole. Before the scene ends, he bites down on and then kills a tick in her neck. Four years later, on the eve of Trump’s victory, Guy, still married to Yuki, visits Cat at her apartment, where she’s been suffering from a flare-up of Lyme disease. She and Guy may be codependent but he’s still tied to his marital and parental responsibilities.
Feiffer herself is a Lyme victim, so Cat’s physical suffering—and attendant yuckiness—surely mirrors what she endured. Guy, in his way, is the human tick that infected Cat’s emotional life. He’s calmed down a bit but remains both childishly annoying and sexually ravenous, as their bedroom banging soon (female nudity alert) discloses.
Four more years pass and, in the third act, Cat, wheelchair bound, visits the stylish Yuki at her elegant home for another interview. Given these women’s shared history with Guy, it’s an odd, barely credible encounter whose revelations I’ll keep close to the vest, even though they seem closer to the playwright’s imagination than to real life. Cat, who gets to meet one of Yuki and Guy’s children (Keira Belle Young), would appear to have learned her lesson, whatever that is.
Feiffer’s program note states that, following her issues with sobriety and Lyme, she blamed her emotional shakiness on the patriarchy—wage inequality, sexual harassment, etc.—only for her to then, ironically, seek surcease from her problems in men: bad choice. The Pain of My Belligerence began as her attempt to confront her mistakes through a fictional account of “How this happens to so many women.”
The election of 2016 served to broaden her concern regarding the impact of the patriarchy and “the phenomenon of toxic masculinity” from women to “all of us.” Despite the play’s election eve structure (reminiscent of Richard Nelson’s Apple Plays), little is made of it apart from Cat’s disgust at Trump’s victory.
It would, of course, be better if the play itself were able to express these things than a program note. Extremely well-acted and directed (by Trip Cullman), The Pain of My Belligerence is often engaging and witty but even more often uncomfortable and disturbing, especially when Cat, for all her personal appeal, responds so obsequiously to Guy’s invasiveness.
The restaurant date scene is like watching an accident unfold in slow-motion—hard to look at but hard to ignore, especially as blazed through like a house on fire by Feiffer and Linklater. Nothing that follows captures the scene’s magnetic excitement. The second-act sex scene is fairly graphic, if common enough, but it has a striking moment when the supine Guy holds the naked Cat overhead like an airplane. In the third act, Vanessa Kai’s cool-as-snow Yuki (“yuki” = snow in Japanese) steals the scene from Feiffer, who plays it with a wounded, almost mask-like, how-did-I-screw-things-up-so-badly squint.
Mark Wendland’s neutral wooden set of moving platforms and latticed walls is fine, as are Ben Stanton’s lighting and Elisheba Ittoop’s music and sound design. But The Pain of My Belligerence doesn’t entirely avoid the need for ibuprofen.
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