Theater review by Helen Shaw
The three scenes of Halley Feiffer’s latest comic dive into the hellscape of womanhood, The Pain of My Belligerence, are arranged like a flight of bitter wines. As we drain the cup of each episode, Feiffer offers us variations on the thought that some poisons are aphrodisiacs—and vice versa.
The first sip is the best. In this bravura episode, Cat (Feiffer herself) and Guy (Hamish Linklater) engage in accelerated, exaggerated first-date talk. Wedged into a glowing restaurant booth, Guy praises, insults and dizzies Cat, who giggles helplessly even as Guy reveals himself to be a preening jackass. (“You’re terrible!” she squeals. “I’m a serial killer,” he drawls back.) In the weirdest moment of their whirlwind encounter, the married Guy sees a tick on Cat’s neck and tears it out with his teeth.
Their dysfunction duet is peripatetic, nauseating, exciting. But the next two segments are not nearly as strong. As Cat’s Lyme disease and romantic obsession weaken her faculties, Feiffer raises the symbolism hammer too high. The three sections are set four years apart because each takes place on Election Night, so there are two poisons—one bacterial, one patriarchal—scourging Cat’s system. And when she visits Guy’s wife Yuki (Vanessa Kai), we hardly need the image of a brain-fogged Cat spilling a glass of water to get that she’s making a mess.
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.
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Halley Feiffer. Directed by Trip Cullman. With Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater, Vanessa Kai. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.