“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” This quote by the great poet Maya Angelou, and oft-repeated by her dear friend Oprah Winfrey, has become a mantra for many people in recent years. Yet it’s hard to tell in the brilliant, sometimes hard-to-watch opening scene of Halley Feiffer’s semi-autobiographical dark comedy The Pain of My Belligerence, now at Playwrights Horizons under Trip Cullman’s assured direction, whether magazine writer Cat (fearlessly played by Feiffer) simply hasn’t heard this platitude or is just choosing to ignore it.
Why? Because there’s no question that Guy, the handsome, charismatic, unpredictable, sometimes unspeakably cruel and definitely married restaurateur (exquisitely embodied by Hamish Linklater) has no hesitancy in speaking his truth, even while attempting to seduce her: “I’m a monster.” “I’m the devil.” “I’m evil.” And even as you question why Cat easily gives in to his advances rather than just running away, it’s likely we will all recognize at least one time in our lives when we willingly ignored every red light, yield sign or guard rail and allowed ourselves to go over the edge.
No mere exercise, however, in simply recreating a dysfunctional relationship, the play strives for something much larger: to be an examination of the toxic masculine energy in our society. We see, in painful detail, not only its effects on Cat (who, like Pfeiffer did in real life, comes down with an ultra-serious case of Lyme Disease), Guy (who proves to have a couple of redeeming qualities mixed in with his more Mephistophelean ones) and eventually Guy’s wife Yuki (a superb Vanessa Kai), who punishes herself, in ways different than Cat’s, for both her enormous success in business and her failure to leave the constantly cheating Guy.
It’s also no coincidence that all three of the play’s long scenes take place on three different election days. While no male president is ever mentioned, Feiffer is clearly placing some responsibility on the political patriarchy for the way we all behave. It’s an interesting observation, but Feiffer really doesn’t flesh it out enough (which would require a longer play). The choice of dates also makes one wonder if Feiffer (as herself and Cat) is somehow trying to shift responsibility for her own bad decision-making to a larger ethos. Or perhaps she’s simply advocating the need for a female commander-in-chief in 2020.