Review of The Pain of My Belligerence at Playwrights Horizons

  • Our critic's rating:
    April 23, 2019
    Review by:

    The penultimate scene in The Pain of My Belligerence - a play that feels way longer than the announced 85 minutes - is a compact piece of pretty good writing. In a few short minutes, Halley Feiffer (yes THAT Feiffer) managers to surprise and entertain us. The problem is that we have to sit through the first two scenes to get to the third.

    This script is a doozy. In the PR about this show Ms. Feiffer states that she is addressing the problem of the patriarchy: how it manipulates all of us, women and men alike. We profess equality, but in reality we lead complicated lives that do not measure up to our declarations. This is a loosely autobiographic story of what might have been had Feiffer not chosen a path less travelled.

    All well and good, except for the fact that Feiffer has left out the elements of story and plot. Instead what we have is a relentless barrage of dysfunctionality without let-up. We meet the couple in question, Cat (Feiffer) and Guy (Hamish Linklater) on their first “date” in 2012. They are meeting at the restaurant he co-owns with his wife, Yuki. So, if I get this right, he is cheating on his wife in public at their restaurant. Stupider liaisons have occurred, I suppose, but I cannot think of any at the moment.

    Over the next decades of minutes we listen to conversation that apparently titillates said couple but does little for any of us. Other than make us wonder why either of them is staying at the table. (The only food and drink is Pellegrino and asparagus - some restaurant!) She interrupts his pointless stories, giggles unconvincingly, and he bites her on her shoulder. Over and over again. The questions that kept coming to mind were, “Why doesn’t she leave?” and "Why is he so crazy about this chick?" Which may have been Ms. Feiffer’s point, but here it backfires.

    Next up we are 4 years in, and this couple is now a thing. Not a good thing. She is suffering from Lyme disease (despite his having sucked the bug out of her at their first dinner…yep) which makes her more or less a recluse. She has no energy for anything except staying in bed. A quick blowjob, or hand job, or fuck is not out of the question, however. In the four years this couple has been together (he is still married, and she still needs to be assured that his wife does not know) their relationship has blossomed into a series of arguments that flip from rage to laughter to passion in nanoseconds. Why? Who knows. Perhaps the monotony of their dialog is driving them mad.

    To add insult to injury, Ms. Feiffer sets this scene on the night of the 2016 election. For most of us that night stands on its own as a nightmare. It did not need this couple’s dysfunction to add to it.

    In that third scene, the wife (Vanessa Kai) is revealed, and the tale comes full circle. It is tied up in a few swift moves that make sense at the same time they surprise. I got the feeling that this was the first thing Ms. Feiffer wrote, and then she searched for the prequel.

    Look - I get that there are dysfunctional relationships that cry out to be put on a stage. Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams spring to mind. These writers, however, use language that is transcendent. They make us bow to their will and look at what we do not see by the sheer force of their writing skill. In spite of everyone's best efforts - this cast never holds back - there is nothing to be done for this production because the script never delivers.

    The best thing that can be said for this show that it drives people to the nearest bar as soon as they exit Playwrights Horizons, in pursuit of something that will soothe - hence it is stimulating the economy.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "After that fabulous, horrible and all-too-familiar pas de deux that begins the play, “Pain” sheds the succinctness and indirection that characterize the best short stories and treads water — thematically and dramatically — for another hour. Like its suffocatingly entangled lovers, it doesn’t know when to quit."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "The clumsiness of the play’s final hour is disappointing mainly because the restaurant scene is such a killer. In those first 30 minutes, director Trip Cullman has Feiffer and Linklater push their performances to the edge of nightmarish exaggeration while keeping their date horribly believable. In their hands, modern romance is very much like a bullfight. One contender sees red flags, but plunges forward anyway. The other dodges gracefully around her, all the while holding the knife."
    Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

    "As “Belligerence” jumps ahead in time, Feiffer demonstrates what happens when a woman in the midst of a personal crisis focuses on one aspect of her life (a man) to the detriment of that life. She also introduces additional characters who serve as an effective counter to Linklater’s projection of testosterone — and these later scenes, as directed by Trip Cullman, seethe and sometimes even boil over."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "You have to hand it to the producers of Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus: They have guts. The latest work from acclaimed playwright Taylor Mac wouldn't seem the likeliest of hits in a Broadway environment littered with children's shows and presold properties, even if it does star three-time Tony winner Nathan Lane. But that hasn't dissuaded the intrepid group from presenting this no-holds-barred raunchfest, a "sequel" to one of Shakespeare's lesser-known and -regarded tragedies, featuring a plethora of scatological gags revolving around bodily fluids and gas escaping from corpses. It would be a pleasure to report that the gamble has paid off, at least creatively. Unfortunately, despite the tremendous abundance of talent both onstage and off, the production is mainly notable for being the most batshit-crazy thing to be seen on Broadway in many a moon."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    "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."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety