Halley Feiffer’s The Pain of My Belligerence is the kind of deeply personal play that’s absolutely no fun to criticize. Unfortunately, it’s also no fun to sit through. Feiffer is certainly stripping herself down both off- and onstage: She also stars in this story about a young woman whose life is derailed by Lyme disease and by an outrageously toxic relationship, circumstances modified from her own experience. But her vulnerability, though it might have stemmed from a personal awakening, doesn’t translate into a broader theatrical revelation. The play, for all its attempts at courageous self-exposure, feels sour and on-the-nose.
The bulky heavy-handedness of its title turns out to be a giveaway. Billed as a “harrowing comedy,” Pain is more of a cringey grind, even at its brief 75 minutes. We begin in an upscale Japanese restaurant, where Cat (Feiffer), a “tack-sharp and ambitious” journalist is on a first date with slick, tattooed Guy (Hamish Linklater), one of the entrepreneurs behind the fancy eatery where they sit. I know Cat is those adjectives because the play’s marketing blurb tells me so, and because she writes for The New Yorker. But mostly, the audience is asked to take any preexisting personality Cat might have had on faith, because by the time we meet her with Guy, she’s a blushing, self-deprecating cliché, all bashful cutesiness and half-hearted attempts to assert her own intelligence in the face of his aggressive, mercurial charisma. And yes, she’s supposed to be this way — Feiffer wants to investigate how women become complicit in their own denigration, how certain kinds of misogyny can be dangerously magnetic — but the play’s tone is so frantic, its characters so overstated that we’re deprived of the chance to feel for either of these humans before being immediately put off by them.
“I’m the devil … I’m a sociopath … I’m evil, a serial killer, a monster,” Guy tells Cat repeatedly throughout their flirtation, jumping between chuckling hilarity and serious menace. “Almost forgot,” he adds, “I’m also profoundly mentally ill.” Guy — who also interrupts Cat, belittles her, tells her to shut up, grabs her face, invades her space, calls her beautiful as a trump card, listens to nothing she says, and bites her during the play’s first scene — is giving voice to all the implications of a charming abuser’s behavior, except that there’s nothing actually charming about him. We’re supposed to laugh, and some of the audience does, but the scenario is so exaggerated that the laughter feels gross: either creepy, if you somehow aren’t keyed into the scene’s nastiness, or self-congratulatory if you are. Perhaps it’s cathartic for some, but I couldn’t find my way past a kind of discontented shrug: Good for us — we can all see how horrific this man is. What we can’t really see is a Guy who’s more than a satanic caricature — or a Cat who had identity and integrity before the arrival of this man — and without those, why should we care? The kind of cruelty and complicity Feiffer’s trying to talk about are insidious, but her play makes them ineffectually obvious.
Cat and Guy get a bit more dimension as the play progresses, but the aftertaste of Pain’s first scene is lingering and bitter. It hangs around as we watch the couple four years after their first date, when Cat is debilitated by Lyme disease, professionally washed up, and still clinging to her rakish lover who, totally unsurprisingly, is married with kids. (She’s bitten by the tick in Scene 1, so she gets two crippling diseases at once.) The play spans eight years, with each scene taking place on the eve of an election — hopeful 2012, devastating 2016, and scary, as-yet-unknown 2020 — and by the end, Guy’s wife, Yuki (Vanessa Kai), has entered the action. Kai is elegant and self-assured, but the particular brand of elegant self-assurance she’s being given to play feels like another cliché: the knowing and long-suffering but sophisticated and unflustered wife of the demonic serial adulterer.
Feiffer’s trying to pick apart the types in her play, but the types themselves push back, remaining depressingly tropey despite the attempt at underlying humanity. And in the end, the excruciating baby steps that Cat finally manages to make are undermined by director Trip Cullman’s staging on Mark Wendland’s modular, wood-planked set. Cat needs a real exit — some kind of new and striking way out of the space that signals the long overdue breaking of some really deep, really poisonous patterns. But Cullman doesn’t quite solve the play’s culminating physical gesture, and so the possibility of catharsis again dies on the vine. The Pain of My Belligerence wants to be a play about growth, about how much it hurts to change, but in its queasy blend of the parodic and the personal, it stalls out, never really taking us much of anywhere.
The Pain of My Belligerence is at Playwrights Horizons through May 12.