“Subtlety is a privilege,” declared playwright/performer Taylor Mac in a recent New York Times profile. Mac went on to argue that only artists with little at risk are afforded the room for subtlety–an indirectness that can prove boring at best, and irresponsible at worst. Mac did not specifically tie this concept to our current historical moment, but it’s hard not to draw that line. Our times are not subtle. The day-to-day news tends to beggar belief. Even setting aside the question of privilege, why should we expect artists to find subtlety in times that lack it?
Halley Feiffer is taking a leaf out of Mac’s book. Her new play, The Pain of My Belligerence, receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons, is neither subtle nor quiet. It follows Cat, a thirty-year-old freelance journalist, who falls for Guy, a restaurant magnate ten years her senior. (Guy’s name offers a clue to Feiffer’s intentions.) In a sharp, excruciating opening scene, Guy seduces Cat over asparagus–at a restaurant he co-founded with his wife, no less. He says they are separating, then tells Cat she is beautiful, then muses, “How are you still single?” So far, so familiar.
Something else happens within the first minute of Feiffer’s play, however: Guy bites Cat on the shoulder. She laughs nervously, and so does the audience. But it is horrifying. All the more so when he bites her again, and again. In between each horrible bite, Guy keeps telling Cat exactly who he is. “I’m evil.” Bite. “I’m a monster.” Bite. “I am profoundly mentally ill.” Then with a final bite, he sucks a tick out of Cat’s neck. By this point, Guy himself can only be viewed as an infection: a walking, talking disease, burrowing into Cat’s being.
Belligerence is particularly unsettling in its focus on fragile bodies. Not only Cat’s, though hers will deteriorate over the course of the play, which spans 2012 to 2020 in three compact scenes. Each body we see on stage writhes in pain. Feiffer is playing on the fragility inherent in actors placing themselves before an audience. In dialing up her language to extremes, she forces us to really feel, in our gut, the physical pain of these characters. We share in that fragility.
That may sound masochistic, but it’s a means to an end. This play is about a racist, misogynist, patriarchal disease of a man who, despite announcing exactly who he is at every moment, makes an agreeing world into his victim. “I am not that guy,” yells Guy (heh) in one scene, pointing at Donald Trump on TV. Of course he is, but that isn’t Feiffer’s point. She is getting at the state of insanity and terror with which “that Guy” has infected the collective bloodstream, and how little we still understand, or are able to process, the damage being done.
Trip Cullman’s smart production conjures elegant locales (a high-end restaurant, a palatial apartment) as suffocating, prison-like spaces. Trapped in these little boxes, his actors thrive.
The ever-essential Hamish Linklater is dialed to 11 and spins wonders from Feiffer’s horror-movie dialogue, capturing Guy’s charm without ever losing his sadism. Feiffer, who also plays Cat, does not make for a convincing career journalist, but she excels at keeping the character sympathetic through all her horrible choices. As Cat’s body is ravaged by Lyme disease, Feiffer does not flinch from her overwhelming pain. And somehow the more needy Cat becomes, the more you like her. Knowing that she is both victim and a failure to herself, Cat grows wryly amused by the horror of it all.
That is where Feiffer leaves Cat, but it is not where she intends to leave us. Belligerence is theater as a scream of pain. It is not subtle or quiet; nor does it point to some instructive way forward. The point is to feel the pain of where we are, and let that pain live in you. We’re not okay. We’re all sick. We’re very, very sick.