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(photo by Joan Marcus)

Cat (Halley Feiffer) and Guy (Hamish Linklater) are on a first date not-necessarily-from-hell in The Pain of My Belligerence (photo by Joan Marcus)

Playwrights Horizons
Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 12, $49-$89

In such plays as I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, playwright, screenwriter, and actress Halley Feiffer has shown that she doesn’t like to make things easy for the audience. In her latest provocation, The Pain of My Belligerence, which opened tonight at Playwrights Horizons, she’ll make you squirm and cringe over and over again, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off the train wreck of a relationship at the center of this bitter black comedy. Feiffer, the daughter of Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer, portrays the squirrely Brooklyn-based, almost-thirty-year-old journalist Cat, who is on a first date with Guy (Hamish Linklater), a smarmy forty-year-old architect and restaurateur who was featured in a magazine article she wrote about his wildly successful business partner. They are in a small, private, cozy booth at one of his fancy eateries, and he is just about as hideous as a man can be, making insensitive sexist and racist jokes, repeatedly touching her inappropriately, and getting ridiculously mad at her when she tries to say something. But every time she thinks about leaving, he puts on his oily, smug charm and she relents — and even gets titillated by his gross come-ons.

“Are you bored?” he asks. “A little,” she says, adding, “Joking.” He responds, “You bitch,” and she laughs. A moment later she begins, “How do you —” He cuts her off, saying, “Shut up.” She argues, “I wasn’t interrupting!” He says, “I know, just wanted to see how it’d feel to tell you to shut up.” She asks, “How did it feel?” He replies, “Amazing,” and she laughs again. She calls him “terrible” and “horrible,” while he describes himself as “evil, a serial killer, a monster, the devil, a sociopath,” but instead of getting up from the table, she sidles over closer to him, even moving in for a possible kiss. Everyone in the theater — from the actors and the characters themselves to the audience — knows this potentially destructive relationship can only be trouble, as Guy is a textbook example of toxic masculinity and the white patriarchy — but Cat appears to be reveling in her brutal subjugation. All it takes is a few words from him (“I’m being a jerk. I’m really sorry. I just. I get nervous. Around women who I want to like me. I overcompensate.”) and she seems happy to drive right through what should be big red stoplights. Their poisonous codependency continues into the second act before leading to a brilliant turn of events in the third.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Cat (Halley Feiffer) and Guy (Hamish Linklater) have some cross words for each other in world premiere at Playwrights Horizons (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Pain of My Belligerence takes place on election day in 2012, 2016, and 2020, with Mark Wendland’s entrancing set design expanding in each act as director Trip Cullman and Feiffer, in their sixth collaboration, put things in perspective, with Cat becoming ever more compressed each step of the way. No political figures are named in the eighty-minute play, but we inherently understand what occurred in the first two presidential elections while being fearful of what might happen next, casting a pall even over a graphic sex scene. Feiffer gives a bold, brave performance, baring all, while Linklater (Seminar, Cymbeline) earns the audience’s wrath as a master manipulator, but Vanessa Kai (KPOP, Somebody’s Daughter) steals the show in the third act as a beguiling surprise character, her every movement exquisitely choreographed by Cullman (Lobby Hero, Significant Other) as the play reexamines victimization, misogyny, harassment, and hypocrisy during the #MeToo era. Although the play is not autobiographical, it is loosely based on deeply personal and intimate elements of Feiffer’s life, including dealing with a debilitating illness and searching for answers in unstable relationships with men. She doesn’t exactly tie it all up in a cute little bow at the end, instead continuing our discomfort until the lights go out — and the unique experience of the play follows us out into the street, sticking with us like an aching bruise that just won’t go away.

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