The first scene of Halley Feiffer’s new drama is a bear trap. It seizes one’s attention and won’t let go. Feiffer, who stars as Cat, is having drinks and hors d’oeuvres with Guy, a restaurateur whose wife she has profiled for The New Yorker. He’s explaining to her his design of the Japanese restaurant they are in; as performed by Hamish Linklater, he is arrogant, charming, playful, insulting, and possibly dangerous. When he says to her, “I’m a serial killer,” and quickly follows it up with “I’m joking,” it’s not completely reassuring.
The first scene is as thrilling as Richard III’s wooing of Lady Anne. It’s rife with humor, danger, and switchbacks, as Guy’s behavior borders on pathological. He bites her neck, and when she draws back, he says, “This is how people get to know each other.”
Cat: No, it’s not.
Guy: How do you think cave people decided who to mate with?
Cat: What, biting and hitting each other?
Like Richard, Linklater’s Guy turns emotions on and off almost instantaneously. He knows exactly the bait to hook his prey, and he takes the time to do it right. When he springs his trap, Cat is his. She knows he is married, but she acknowledges his charisma and that she is, indeed, at the beginning of something.
Guy: You’re terrified of falling in love with me.
Cat: This is just a first ... date.
Guy: But you can feel it. Can’t you?
That first encounter, however, contains the germ of Cat’s downfall—literally. At the end of it, Guy spots a tiny bug in her neck. She fears it might be a tick from hiking in the woods. He sucks it out, but her fate is sealed.
Four years later—all three scenes take place on presidential election nights, starting with 2012—Cat is at a low point physically. Deep into her affair with Guy, she has been ravaged by Lyme disease; she is a recluse too weak to walk outside her apartment. Still, she is his mistress, and Guy is patient and concerned; he pays her bills and he’s annoyed that she won’t call him when she needs help. “I have to do it on my own,” she tells him. “I have to do everything on my own. … And I can’t do anything on my own.” Even his routine gift of groceries irritates her, though he’s not looking so well either.
The final scene, in 2020, is a reckoning of sorts, as Cat revisits Yuki (a cool, composed Vanessa Kai) for a putative New Yorker follow-up, and they discuss Guy, woman to woman. Yuki has some revelations about him that stun Cat, who realizes that she has had the wrong impression of Yuki’s marriage. And so powerful is Linklater’s earlier presence that it still hovers in his absence.
That’s not to shortchange Feiffer, who is excellent in the first scene, tentatively being wooed and playing along. She conveys a young woman unsure of herself and not believing the come-ons from the attractive, powerful man by her side. And the comedy is woven in skillfully, as in Guy’s description of the restaurant (heavy with wood slatting, by Mark Wendland): “I had a concept for the place—you can see it, can’t you? A sort of Osaka-meets-Fellini-in-the-’60s vibe?”
But then, Feiffer’s play deals with masculine attraction and the way it can knock a woman off balance, disable her common sense, and ultimately cripple her—the metaphors are obvious. Under the direction of Trip Cullman, the mood of Belligerence begins with playful romanticism that becomes darker, but the message is muddy.
Feiffer (who has suffered from Lyme disease) suggests that Guy, like the tick that bit Cat, has injected a poison into her, yet it’s a poison that she—or by extension all women—can’t resist. The reason she delayed going to the doctor at the onset of symptoms was her own bad decision, she admits: “After that first date? You—consumed me. You ate it all up. My whole—fucking life.” The play isn’t a full-throated condemnation of men, although it seems to resent the power and charm of the one male character and lay Cat’s lack of agency at his feet.
The election nights trace the empowerment of minorities (Obama’s second win) to their disempowerment (Trump in 2016); that includes women. The third scene, in the future, doesn’t promise more than Cat’s individual liberation, ending with an arrangement that the right wing would probably find distasteful, but which provides a sophisticated coda for Feiffer’s deeply felt, if uneven, drama.
Halley Feiffer’s The Pain of My Belligerence runs through May 12 at Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m Tuesday through Saturday and 7 p.m. on Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 564-1325 or visit playwrightshorizons.org.