The Review: Playwrights Horizons’ The Pain of my Belligerence
It’s a first date nightmare, both disturbing and intoxicating but not because of any liquor or poison. This is a sober and clarifying experience, pulsating with the hypnotic yet toxic masculinity that the world seems to be hypnotized by. The Pain of my Belligerence, playwright Halley Feiffer’s edgy and probing new play is a heartbreakingly authentic descent into self-destruction and intimate rebuilding that is both hilarious and beautifully unflattering. Within her wildly brave attempt to understand herself, playwright Feiffer uncovers her escapist compulsion, unbalanced fantasies, and the turbulent nightmare version of the truth hidden inside the bondage of our narrative. It’s the disheartening imbalance of the patriarchy of her pain within the framework of obsessive compulsive attraction, illness, and the effects of the American election night results from before and beyond. It’s about her own ability to survive, but in a way, it’s really about all of us as we strive to figure out how we got here and how we let it all happen. It’s about growth within destruction and the “Weeeeeee!” inside The Pain of our Belligerence.
Playwright/Actor Halley Feiffer (Broadway’s The Front Page) takes the lead, portraying another altered dimension version of a story that resembles a quality of herself all roped together in a character named Cat. Within seconds, she’s simultaneously attracted and insulted by the energetically handsome narcissist Guy, played to the hilt by the spectacularly seductive Hamish Linklater (Broadway’s Seminar, Shakespeare in the Park’s Cymbeline). The two are on a first date in one his wife’s many restaurants, which tells you about everything you need to know about this dangerously seductive gentleman. He is both utterly charming and obnoxiously self-absorbed, and naturally Cat can’t help but giggle and shiver with excitement, even when shamed for it. The connection is both on fire with sexual chemistry and infectious like a disease, and we join most easily with her predicament, internally pleading with her to run but completely understanding his power. It’s shocking to sit with our complicity and the excitement of a man who openly acknowledges that he is a deranged monster, but we can’t help but acknowledge and understand Cat’s desire to be kissed and wanted. We’ve all been there, or at least I hope you have all felt that powerful inner pull and thrust towards trouble. And if you haven’t, what’s that all about?
Jump four years later from that first date. Both are on real life election nights in America (and there’s one more to come). The first scene is on the night of Obama’s re-election, and they each reference the knowing, in the same way they both sit smugly with a similar feeling of knowing four years later. They can’t help it, like most of us, in believing it will be her time, as they can’t comprehend a world that would ever elect him. It’s understandable, as it is a feeling most can identify with; the shock and disbelief that we live in a society that could do just that. But there it is, and there she is, deeply fallen and tramped by her own need, under the spell of a compelling mendacious married man and now with an Orange Monster for a President. She is ill; internally, mentally, physically, and globally, all because of a bite, from either a tick or a man, depending on how you want to look at it. Alone, de-evolving before both his and her very own eyes, in pain and conflicted, fighting a disease both in her blood and in her persona. It’s crippling, this compulsion, but one that may lead to some kind of growth and understanding. We hope.
It’s solid stuff, this addiction, especially when she rolls up to her fears embodied by the kind and deliberate wife, Yuki, beautifully portrayed by the stunningly wise Vanessa Kai (2ST’s Somebody’s Daughter) and her daughter, Olive, engagingly played by Keira Belle Young (National tour of The King and I). The women come together in pairs, directed with force and fluidity by Trip Cullman (Broadway’s Choir Boy, ATC’s The Mother) entangled within the ever present wood of his wife’s signature style and success, designed with compelling elegance by Mark Wendland (Broadway’s Heisenberg) with strong support by costume designer Paloma Young (Broadway’s Lobby Hero), lighting designer Ben Stanton (PH’s Marjorie Prime), and original music and sound designer Elisheba Ittoop (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim). Feiffer, who also wrote the insanely cool titled How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them (Rattlestick) serves up some glass shattering and touching reassurances of love and devotion, filled to overflowing with Pellegrino and some peppermint of understanding and kinship between the two women living within Guy’s orbit. He loved them both, but not equally or kindly, but theirs is a corrosive affliction we can all understand and perhaps we suffer from it as well, or we did at some point in our lives. The culture and phenomenon of blaming the patriarchy for the pain is being replaced by the freedom of a new rationale, and on that third election night in 2020, we all wait to see if we have in fact changed our dynamic, imperfectly, but heroically, or fallen prey to our worst fears.