It’s clear from the current Broadway revival of “Burn This” that Lanford Wilson needs to write a third act to tell us what happens to Anna in her abusive relationship with the volatile Pale. Now comes “The Pain of My Belligerence,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, and playwright-actress Halley Feiffer gives us that third act.
Feiffer plays Cat, a twentysomething writer at the New Yorker who finds herself on a first date with Guy (Hamish Linklater). He’s not only married (to a woman she’s profiled in the magazine) and a good decade her senior. Guy is also patronizing, condescending and physically abusive to the extreme. When Cat objects, despite being clearly smitten with his flamboyant macho display, Guy repeatedly cracks, “Just kidding!” But he’s not kidding when he rubs his erection against Cat and bites her bare shoulder multiple times before sucking a tick from the back of her neck.
While all this unusual foreplay unfolded onstage, my mind remained stuck on the fact that a young writer for the New Yorker is dating her subject and on the verge of sleeping with him. If Cat interned for People magazine or, better yet, worked as a barista at Starbucks, “The Pain of My Belligerence” would make perfect sense. Which is not to say that great reporters have never ever slept with their subjects.
Perhaps this is Feiffer’s world. But the New Yorker is not Cat’s world, despite the play’s promo copy (written or approved by Feiffer) that “Cat is a journalist at the top of her game: tack-sharp and ambitious….”
Sorry, but Cat lacks the verbal skills of a good writer, not to mention the ballsiness of even a mediocre reporter. Maybe Cat is being a fabulist when she mentions writing for the New Yorker when she’s not yet 30?
No. In the final scene, Cat’s on a profile assignment that no decent editor would ever make, especially to a writer who has been so long out of the game.
Instead of elevating Feiffer’s character, these New Yorker references undermine Feiffer’s writing, which is often breezy and amusing in a dark rom-com kind of way.
Playing Guy, Linklater clearly communicates that he’s lusting for Cat, and the heat is palpable between the two characters. Feiffer cleverly navigates being both shocked and turned on by her date. She overdoes the mugging, but as an actress she’s very good at playing a young East Coast version of Jennifer Aniston.
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.
This playwright means to make a big statement. According to the promo copy, “Halley Feiffer’s harrowing comedy sheds light on how we perpetuate our roles within a patriarchal culture….” As if that weren’t adequately portentous, Feiffer sets each scene of “Belligerence” on the day of a different presidential election, starting with 2008. Still, “Belligerence” emerges as a more honest work than “Burn This.”