'The Pain of My Belligerence': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Halley Feiffer and Hamish Linklater in 'The Pain of My Belligerence'
Strains mightily for significance.
5/12/2019

Halley Feiffer co-stars with Hamish Linklater in Feiffer's world-premiere play about a toxic relationship spanning several election cycles.

Couples on a first date would be well advised to avoid the latest drama starring and written by Halley Feiffer. Depicting the corrosive physical and emotional effects of a toxic relationship, The Pain of My Belligerence lays on its themes and heavy-handed symbolism with a trowel. Despite excellent performances by Feiffer and her co-star Hamish Linklater, the play, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, proves more punishing than enlightening.  

The overly long first scene of this 85-minute, intermissionless work depicts a dinner date between Cat (Feiffer), a giggly 29-year-old journalist, and "Guy" (Linklater, superbly playing against type), a 40-year-old married man who designed the elegant Japanese restaurant in which they're dining. The place is one of a "massively successful chain of high-end ramen joints" he co-owns with his older wife Yuki, with whom he has two young daughters.

The encounter proves exceedingly uncomfortable, both for Cat and the audience, as Guy makes a series of highly offensive remarks, each one followed either by the excuse, "I'm joking!" or mocking references to himself as a "serial killer," "sociopath," "monster," "the devil" and "profoundly mentally ill."

He repeatedly bites Cat playfully on various parts of her body, explaining, "This is how people get to know each other," and relates a bizarre story about how he bit his wife so often it resulted in an injury initially mistaken for a cancerous tumor. Despite his macho obnoxiousness, Cat finds herself responding to Guy's not-so-subtle advances, although their ardor is momentarily dimmed when he spots an insect on her neck, bites it off and spits it on the table.

That insect, a tick picked up by Cat on a recent vacation upstate, proves a pivotal plot point. In the second scene, set four years later, a physically debilitated Cat is visited in her apartment by Guy, with whom she has clearly been having a longtime affair. To reveal any more would be to give away the play's several surprises, although the characters and situations are defined so sketchily that the narrative twists feel annoyingly manipulative, despite the sleekness of director Trip Cullman's staging.

"I am a man for whom the rules simply don't apply," Guy tells Cat on their first date. And speaking of men for whom rules don't apply, a certain unnamed president figures prominently in the proceedings. Each of the three scenes, including the third, in which Cat has a strange encounter with Guy's wife Yuki (Vanessa Kai), is set on an election day, from 2012 to 2020. Like everything else about the play, the attempt to thematically link Cat's debasement at the hands of her lover with the debasement of women by Donald Trump, and society in general, is too obvious by half.

The actress-playwright also seems too determined to shock, as evidenced by the inclusion of a graphic, athletic sex scene featuring full nudity that seems more appropriate for a Las Vegas erotic revue. There's no doubt that Feiffer isn't afraid to bare herself in her work, both emotionally and physically, even including a lengthy playwright's note in the program explaining, in great detail, the play's semi-autobiographical inspirations. Unfortunately, The Pain of My Belligerence demonstrates that fearlessness isn't enough when it comes to art: You also need some finesse.

Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York
Cast: Halley Feiffer, Vanessa Kai, Hamish Linklater, Keira Belle Young
Playwright: Halley Feiffer
Director: Trip Cullman
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music and sound designer: Elisheba Ittoop
Presented by Playwrights Horizons