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‘The Pain of My Bellgierence,’ Starring Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater

Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater, The Pain of My Belligerence, Trip Cullman, Playwrights Horizons

Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater in ‘The Pain of My Belligerence,’ directed by Trip Cullman at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

The Pain of My Belligerence written by Halley Feiffer, directed by Trip Cullman, at the outset subtly lures the audience with humor and a playful tone, largely through the adroit  writing and the prodigious work by Feiffer (Cat) and Hamish Linklater (Guy). Once engaged, the playwright slams viewers with profound truths about skewed perceptions caused by having internalized noxious cultural mores. Though it has been assumed these have floated away into the past borne by political correctness and decency, indeed, they remain trenchantly ubiquitous in our workplaces and love relationships.

Feiffer’s play in its World Premiere at Playwrights Horizons, is a standout in its complexity and the development of the characters and themes which reflect the chaotic currency of our times. Folkways learned from our upbringing and reinforced by the culture are nearly impossible to expurgate. In the process we often damage our psyches and souls in wrestling to oust or embrace them. Indeed, Feiffer’s characters Guy, Cat and Yuki are caught knowing what not to do to damage themselves and others. Yet they persist harming themselves and each other. The hope is to end the cycle in their ever-present struggle that seems to go nowhere until deliverance arrives in one form or another. By the conclusion of the play comfort comes and from the most unexpected of sources.

Guy and Cat meet in one of Guy’s restaurants and both engage with light banter and  snacks to match. Feiffer makes it clear that Guy needs no alcohol to fuel his engine. Cat is not plied with drinks to fall under his influence. By the end of the play after taking in all of the themes, character development and action, we realize that the culture’s inherent conceptual liquidity, which has bathed them their entire lives, has already prepped them for their fatal encounter.

Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater, 'The Pain of My Belligerence, Trip Cullman, Playwrights Horizons

Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater in ‘The Pain of My Belligerence, directed by Trip Cullman (Joan Marcus)

We watch amazed as Guy soars into the clouds of triumph spiked by his own adrenaline in pursuit of the frenzy of conquest. With an ineffable “something” he slides invisible, velvet chains onto Cat’s heart and soul using stunning sexiness, charm, self-admitted diabolic flare, and sleek, macho dominance. Linklater’s Guy has adopted the ethos of the hyper-lothario, unparalleled in allurement, alternating compliments and abuse, sweet sensuality and brutality.

Linklater is fabulous. He IS Guy! The women in the audience swoon at his seductiveness; the men laugh and remember a time when they may have achieved a modicum of his brutish grace. And if Incels were prone to seeing live plays, they would surely write down his every tactic, nuance, quip and cutting swipe to get a date.

As mesmerizing and preeminent as Guy is, Cat is the demure, shy, passive, feminine, giggly, clueless counterpart. She is the perfect flower for this buzzing, aggressive bee. As the conversation progresses, we learn that Cat is a writer for the New Yorker who has recently interviewed the successful Yuki, Guy’s wife and partner in the restaurant business. Cat is savvy, smart, assertive in her own right. But she’s putty in Guy’s sphere of influence and so are we putty in Feiffer’s hands, as we watch their brilliantly scripted and acted interplay. We are mesmerized because we cannot “believe” what we see which ultimately is verbal, harmful abuse in the the guise of “love” and “attraction.”

Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater, The Pain of My Belligerence, Trip Cullman, Playwrights Horizons

Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater, ‘The Pain of My Belligerence, directed by Trip Cullman (Joan Marcus)

Immediately, this situation throws up screaming alarms. I was upset and wanted to slap Cat (my younger self) in the face. Wake up! Why is this successful, high-powered, married man seducing you, the vulnerable? Cat is pretty and has lovely skin but is not a Miss America. No matter. It’s all about him. This is a (Trumpian) narcissist, drunk with his own image as a “Don Juan.” Must he notch his belt, prove his sexual prowess, his “beauteous” drawing power with any susceptible women he comes into contact with? Feiffer delivers the truth in spades by the conclusion.

Cat is brilliant and ambitious in her own right. Doesn’t she see through him, or is she that needy? Also, having met/interviewed Yuki how can she be so craven, selfish and harmful as to be amenable to his advances? He is not “just” married; he is in an intricate and incredibly successful partnership with his wife, an impossible situation to extricate himself from. What is Cat thinking? Where is her emotional intelligence?

The writing is superb. Feiffer reveals the tenuous, inner “belligerence” of these two individuals who “play with their own consuming fires.” In the play’s first minutes we have fun watching Feiffer as Cat being cajoled and won over by Guy until we learn the details. Then we are transfixed, horrified. But by the time we note the harmful manifestations of the abusive relationship blooming “in plain sight,” Cat has been bitten by the adrenaline-charged Guy who oozes bewitchment and sadism in equal measure as he infects her. And we note with painful and unsettling recognition the theme of how gender mores (passive female, aggressive male) destabilize perspective even in the most intelligent.

Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater, 'The Pain of My Belligerence, Trip Cullman, Playwrights Horizons

Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater in ‘The Pain of My Belligerence, directed by Trip Cullman (Joan Marcus)

In an important theme, Feiffer reveals how ancient folkways (female competitor, male conqueror, etc.) nullify the power of love and truth to establish a positive life-affirming relationship. Cat and Guy, are psychically and emotionally injured individuals. Life-affirming love is not possible. Indeed, their relationship is doomed and can never fly with freedom.

The irony is that as we watch the first segment, we hope that Guy is not who he really appears to be, an insensitive, self-aggrandizing, narcissist. And we think with her career, Cat just can’t be the whimpy, passive female whose behaviors scream “use me, abuse me, prey on me, I am your willing host.” As the play continues, by the second scene, four years later, the threaded themes of male privilege, “having one’s wife and mistress too,” have blown up into a full-fledged unhealthy relationship.

Cat is ill, alone and unable to work. Guy does not leave his wife as he suggested he was doing four years before. Being with Cat and having a wife and children tears him up. Though they are still intimate, their relationship has morphed and their unhealthiness has graduated. Guy now is adrenaline fueled by Cat’s helplessness and her needing him. For her part she has become dependent on Guy and emotionally weakened. And in a symbolic action at the conclusion of the scene, he plays “airplane” with her like his little daughter whom he loves. Her passivity has psychically debilitated and disempowered her even more.

Vanessa Kai, 'The Pain of My Belligerence, Playwrights Horizons, Trip Cullman

Vanessa Kai in ‘The Pain of My Belligerence,’ directed by Trip Cullman (Joan Marcus)

All negative relationships seek their own level like water, and some fall to their own death. How Feiffer constructs the devolution is superb, as is how she, from the ashes of its demise, has Cat receive a new beginning. Ironically, by this point it is 2020 and the hope of a different cultural ethos after Trump is on the horizon. Perhaps a woman will be a part of this after all as Feiffer tangentially infers? Please!

Feiffer’s play is vital for us today in a time when gender mores (passive female, dominant male) have received a recent resurrection in the current politically divisive climate that has empowered right-wing extremism and encouraged extreme political correctness on the left. Feiffer’s play infers this brilliantly as the setting spans an eight- year-time period with the election cycles as the backdrop beginning in 2012 and ending on election night in 2020. Social, cultural paradigms among the genders are conflicted. How do men and women define themselves apart from the noxious behaviors being exemplified by those whose braggadocio about being cruel and insulting is considered by some as entertaining and funny?

On the other hand there are also dangers in being snarky, smug and self-possessed. Though we may think we’ve learned all there is to know about feminism, chauvinism, privilege, discrimination and gender roles, we are “babes in the woods.” Indeed, unless we dress our minds with uncanny perception and filter our souls to carefully gauge our own growth, we will allow ourselves to fall prey to every kind of influence, unaware we’ve been “bitten” and “infected.” Sadly, such values/notions that take over our mind/vision, we’ve so internalized, we cannot perceive the difference between clever dissembling disguised as truth when it identifies itself as a lie.

Every aspect of this production strikes to the heart. This is only possible with expert direction and excellent performances by Feiffer, Linklater and Vanessa Kai as Yuki. The writing is gloriously truthful. The metaphor of the tick bite is so pointed. Guy bites her, biting out the tick, he thinks. However, unless a tick’s head is removed, it stays and injects its poison to further corrupt its host, until the disease seeks its course. That symbol/metaphor is perfectly threaded by Feiffer throughout her amazing play.

Kudos to Mark Wendland (Scenic Desgin) Paloma Young (Costume Design) Ben Stanton (Lighting Design) and Elisheba Ittoop (Original Music and Sound Design).

The Pain of My Belligerence runs at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street). For tickets and times to this superb production go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

 

 

 

Manhattan Theatre Club’s ‘Choir Boy’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Directed by Trip Cullman

Manhattan Theatre Club, Choir Boy, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Nicholas L. Ashe, Trip Cullman, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope,

(L to R): Niholas L. Ashe, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt, John lay III in ‘Choir Boy,’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Trip Cullman (Michael Murphy)

Choir Boy written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, superbly directed by Trip Cullman is a tour de force that thrills with its beauty and grace and grieves with its recognition that a fine education may advance one in the world, but it doesn’t answer the longing in one’s heart for individual love and acceptance. And so it goes for Pharus Jonathan Young a super achiever who places all his investment in his golden voice and ambitious pride to excel and be someone despite the abuse he receives at the hands of the adult male black community in his hometown and the teenage black students at The Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. Drew, as it’s affectionately known, is an elite, religious, black, male prep school which shapes black men to be accepted into Ivy League Schools and shepherds them toward sterling behavior to succeed in their careers and in life. The question is, as always in Prep Schools. Are the sub rosa mores being transmitted a benefit or a nullification?

Choir Boy opens with the 49th Commencement for Charles R. Drew Prep’s graduating seniors. The gorgeous voice of Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope in a vibrant, nuanced and fierce portrayal) rings out into the auditorium as he leads the choir in a song about “Trusting and Obeying Jesus” as the only way to happiness. The irony of the song and what occurs during the singing is reflective of the play’s underlying themes. It also is the linchpin upon which rests much of the action to follow.

Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper, Choir Boy, Manhattan Theatre Club, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Trip Cullman

(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper in ‘Choir Boy,’ directed by Trip Cullman, Manhattan Theatre Club (Michael Murphy)

What the staff, family and friends of the graduating seniors do not hear are the whispered insults and defamations by Bobby Marrow one of the choir members who clearly disdains and despises Pharus. Upset, distracted, Pharus stops singing and turns around to confront Bobby in a stare down. Bobby who achieves what he wants, to upset and deflect Pharus from his concentration, silences his whisperings. These opening salvos of raw animosity and tension between Bobby (J Quinton Johnson’s aggressions and rage are sustained throughout) and Pharus reveal the conflict which McCraney intensifies and escalates in this thrilling production that is currently at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

After the ceremony, Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper employs his adroit acting skills with moment-to-moment precision) reprimands Pharus for stopping in mid-song, however, Pharus cleverly responds and we understand that he will not be cowed and will maintain his dignity and honor.  Though Marrow presses him to explain, Pharus who has been voted as Choir Lead because of his hard work and golden voice evokes the “behavior of a “Drew man.” He tells Headmaster Marrow (the name is more than ironic), “A Drew man doesn’t tell on his brother. He allows him the honor of confessing himself.” The conflict is clearly expressed, and we understand Pharus is proud of being elected to head the choir which school-wide is considered an honor. However, we wonder why Bobby has chosen to slur Pharus’ sexuality and use the “N” word to demean him. Is this mere jealousy? Or has Pharus provoked him?

Choir Boy, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Manhattan Theatre ClubNicholas L. Ashe, Jonathan Burke, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope

(L to ): Nicholas L. Ashe, Jonathan Burke, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt, John Clay III, Gerald Caesar in ‘Choir Boy,’ Manhattan Theatre Club (Michael Murphy)

Thus, from the outset, McCraney and the fine direction and staging of the opening scenes by Trip Cullman have engaged us. From this point on we are intrigued to learn about these two individuals and discover whether they will resolve their differences by themselves or with the help of the Headmaster and their friends in the choir.

McCraney’s play is a hybrid (musical, comedy, drama). It is not easily defined or pigeonholed and this is just one of its astounding brilliances. For at crucial junctures in the arc of the plot development, the boys’ chorus breaks into shimmering songs during various practice sessions. And there are dance and rhythmic numbers that relate to the themes. Additionally, humor abides throughout. Yet, there is pathos. In short all the emotional peaks and valleys in life are pinged and resonate with truthfulness.

McCraney’s characterizations are right-on. The leads are distinct individuals; they are finely drawn and by the conclusion of the play we note their development. In an irony reminiscent of our current divisive culture, the young men align either with Pharus or Bobby and the behind-the-scenes dynamic of support and friendship escalates the conflict between the two adversaries throughout. the action.

Choir Boy, Austin Pendleton, Nicholas L. Ashe, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Trip Cullman

The cast of ‘Choir Boy’ on Broadway (Michael Murphy)

Additionally, McCraney reveals how the characters negotiate the mores of Drew with lip service and sometime sincerity. Intrigue and surreptitiousness are necessary to get along. And it is the intrigue that crashes into the barricade of Drew “do’s and don’ts” that the characters cannot help but contravene. Thus, they bloody themselves. As a result the explosive scenes bring this incredible social and cultural expose of a black young men’s prep school into the same territory as any white male prep school. Though Drew has a religious fundamental base, the rages, the conflicts, the loves defy class, color, economics. The human heart and human nature unfortunately run true to form. Overcoming evil intent is hard won everywhere. How the protagonist Pharus manages to triumph despite his own self-destructive impulses and need to “be Pharus” is the crux of the play.

The themes relating to division, separation, isolation and, remaining proud and courageous when others attempt to destroy you, McCraney explores with these individuals using humor, song, dance. The plot twists startle. The play’s dynamic is well constructed. From the initial conflict, Bobby, Pharus and their friends and foes are sent spinning until they reach their destinations.

Importantly, from the outset, we understand that the stakes for Pharus and a few other non-legacy young men are very high. Non-legacy men have advanced to Drew by merit based upon their efforts and skills. Pharus has worked very hard to receive a scholarship which he must maintain to take the shot he’s been given or fall by the wayside like other young black men. Thus, in his discussion with Headmaster Marrow, we learn that for Pharus, his newly appointed position as Choir Lead means everything to him. But would he risk that for something even more important?

Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy, Manhattan Theatre Club, Caleb Eberhardt

(L to R): Jeremy Pope,Caleb Eberhardt, ‘Choir Boy,’ Manhattan Theatre Club, Broadway (Michael Murphy)

On the other hand, legacy men like Bobby don’t have Pharus’ worries. Additionally, Bobby enjoys the favor of his uncle’s being the Headmaster. As the arc of development moves toward its climax, we note that Bobby is hell-bent on unseating Pharus and taking the honor for himself. Who will win, who will lose? Clarity of conflict and the high stakes are the genius of this production along with the sensational choral work, the dancing, sensitive acting and the extraordinary meld of the ensemble, all of which makes Choir Boy a uniquely enthralling work..

During the course of the production, we discover the dynamic interplay of the young men who are part of the chorus that Pharus has been chosen to lead because of his academic excellence and golden voice. All who have lead roles are just terrific. Junior Davis, foil of Johnson’s Bobby, nearly stops the show with his hysterical dancing to impress Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton, is humorously grand. Yet he’s expressively and authentically emotional when he reacts to Bobby’s use of the “N” word. It’s a hallowed, stirring moment.) Caleb Eberhardt’s David Heard is sensitive and solid in his portrayal. The sadness he evokes as he walks away from the school is an injustice we take to heart. As Pharus’ roommate and friend Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James, John Clay III is superb. His comedic timing is spot on and his poignance and humanity is what is needed to help Pharus deal with the acute pain of life-long devastation he is trying to work through.

The production would not be as superb as it is without the following creative artists’ efforts. Special and heartfelt kudos to Jason Michael Webb (Music Direction, Arrangements & Original Music) David Zinn (Scenic & Costume Design), Peter Kaczorowski (Lighting Design) Fitz Patton (Original Music & Sound Design) Cookie Jordan (Hair & Makeup Design) Thomas Schall (Fight Direction) Camille A. Brown (Choreography).

Don’t walk, run to see Choir Boy at The Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. The production has no intermission and runs one hour forty-five minutes until 24 February. You can call for tickets at 212-239-6200, go in person to the Friedman or get tickets online at their website.

 

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