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