One can only imagine, reading the playwright’s own program notes and current editorials, that The Pain of My Belligerence is something of an exorcism. Apparently inspired by our misogynist-in-chief and his endorsement by example of noxious behavior, Halley Feiffer’s semi-autobiographical piece features (and enlarges upon) her own struggles with Lyme disease (that’s a tick in the logo), toxic relationships and self-respect.
Cat (Haley Feiffer), who writes for The New Yorker, is having post-interview drinks with Guy (Hamish Linklater) at one of the upscale Asian restaurants he owns with Asian wife, Yuki (Vanessa Kai). The encounter is a heated, sociopathic push/pull. “You’re very beautiful. How are you still single…don’t look down…grrr.” He bites her shoulder. “Stop, I barely know you,” she protests ambivalently. “How do you think cave people got to know each other?” he retorts grinning. “Your profile was a complete puff piece.”
Alternately complimenting/coming on/commanding and insulting Cat, “’just joking,” Guy unsettles his victim sufficiently so that initial defense, “that sounded really arrogant,” diminishes as attraction increases. This particular charming creep has intuited Cat’s vulnerability with well honed skill. The worst kind of alpha male, he changes tacks with the sharpness of ricocheting pinball taking her breath away. A psychological bodice ripper.
Guy also intermittently mentions he’s a monster to whom rules don’t apply, the devil, and profoundly mentally ill. When she backs up, he reverts to ersatz sensitivity. The latter wipes the former clean. References to sex with his wife enter her consciousness as foreplay. Vulgarity titillates. Confidence registers as masculinity. When will we learn to listen? Cat giggles, frowns, pants and finally, darts at him.
The scene plays beautifully. Any woman will be uncomfortable. Feiffer is appallingly willing, Linklater gloriously credible. They begin an affair. Four years later, we see Cat in bed (Lyme disease) with Guy delivering her groceries. Surface push/pull is more equal now but not in a healthy way. Cat has learned to respond to Guy in kind. She ultimately gets the raw end of the stick, but at this point is addicted. Hearing him on the phone with his children is unnerving. We want to scream at her. Both actors are admirable, Linklater pitch perfect.
Scene three, which involves Yuki, is bizarre. I wish I believed Feiffer’s acting here, but stiff facial expressions seeming to click from one to the next are off-putting. The performer fares less well with little to say and do. Writing, however is good. As Guy’s wife, the excellent Vanessa Kai arrives elegant and savvy, epitomizing everything we might imagine and some we never would’ve guessed. One singular outburst is priceless.
Director Trip Cullman (The Mother, Choir Boy) not only shows emotional nuance, but adds particularly imaginative physical manifestation. Pacing is skilled. Use of the stage (including a scene observed through slats) intriguing.
Mark Wendland’s Set Design is comprised of Japanese Wood Slats which might easily be taken as a metaphor. Except for the wall on which Cat’s television sits, it works.
Also featuring Kiera Belle Young as Guy’s daughter
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Halley Feiffer and Hamish Linklater
The Pain of My Belligerence by Halley Feiffer
Directed by Trip Cullman
416 West 42nd Street
Through May 12, 2019