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Theatre in Review: The Pain of My Belligerence/Then They Forgot About the Rest

Top: Halley Feiffer, Hamish Linklater. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Elizabeth Ramos, Maki Borden. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Two new plays examine women in crisis in an increasingly baleful world. The Pain of My Belligerence, at Playwrights Horizons, begins with Cat, a New Yorker writer, on a date with a world-class Mr. Wrong; naturally, she is going to end up hopelessly entangled with him. He is Guy, an arrogant, flippant, self-regarding, mansplaining, personal-space-invading architect, who alternates between striking man-of-vision poses, acts of calculated rudeness (but they're just jokes!), and falling on Cat, the better to nibble away at her shoulder. As played by Hamish Linklater, he is a holy terror -- when he says, "I'm the devil," which he does frequently, you almost have to admire his honesty. He is a one-man assault team, weirdly magnetic in his sheer perversity and a fine example of playwright Halley Feiffer's skill at creating hair-raisingly, skin-crawlingly toxic males.

Indeed, anyone with half an ounce of sense would flee a date with him at the earliest opportunity. And did I mention he is married? His spouse is also his business partner in a chain of hip Japanese restaurants catering to the current craze for ramen. (Cat has done a profile on Yuki, the wife, which has become something of a classic.) Guy gets a kick out of making fun of Yuki -while in one of her eateries -- telling a scalding story about the extreme hypochondria that sends her into a panic attack at the thought of spending a long plane trip sitting next to a man with cancer. Charming, no? Guy is not only not boyfriend material -- he isn't even the stuff of a distant acquaintance.

And yet Cat sticks it out, giggling like a demented teenager and, occasionally, pushing back against his aggressiveness, but just as often looking goo-goo-eyed when he tells her she is beautiful. Feiffer, a skilled actress, captures Cat's shifting moods with the skill of a youngster scooping up fireflies in a jar. Still, it's more than a little difficult to imagine this moony thing turning out crack prose for the world's greatest magazine. (I have a feeling that the ladies of the New Yorker are going to have few sharp words for Feiffer.) Guy's single nondestructive act, during one of his nuzzling sessions, is to remove a tick from the back of Cat's neck. With that, she should have gratefully stood up, made a beeline for the exit, and gotten a doctor's appointment for the next morning.

Instead, in a modern approximation of the fainting couch, Cat lapses into an affair with Guy that, unaccountably, leaves her too busy or too distracted to get medical attention. In the second scene of The Pain of My Belligerence, it is four years later, and she is a semi-invalid, barely subsisting on the groceries that Guy drops off on an irregular basis. (In one unpleasant passage we hear about what happens when she runs out of toilet paper.) If the first scene is out of balance -- too much Guy and not enough Cat -- the second scene has an ugly Strindbergian vigor as he tries to lure his ailing lover into having sex, an act repeatedly interrupted by phone calls from home; it's a vivid picture of an affair built on a foundation of need and rage, a tangle from which neither partner can extricate her- or himself.

But if Feiffer wants us to see that Cat is complicit in her own misery, she fails to explain its attraction. We learn a great deal about Guy over these two scenes but next to nothing about Cat, who seemingly has no friends, familial attachments, or interests outside Guy. She is meant to be a compelling study of a woman who participates in her own humiliation, whose chief addiction is love (or something like it), but, too much of the time, she merely seems simple.

The management holds back the play's programs until after it is over, largely, I think, to preserve a sense of surprise about what happens next, so you'll get no more from me, except to note that the action leaps ahead four years and posits a new sort of life for Cat, who isn't doing at all well. It is, I think, supposed to be a sort-of happy ending, but you're likely to be of two minds about that. The action is set on three successive election nights -- 2012, '16, and '20 -- in a grab for larger significance that Feiffer doesn't quite achieve. Feiffer, who in moments of angst, can summon the face of a startled canary, plays Cat unsparingly, a remarkable feat in its way, since, in her program note, she details her own struggles with addiction, bad relationships, and Lyme disease. However, if her best plays walk a tightrope between laughter and deep discomfort, The Pain of My Belligerence tumbles over too often into the latter state, and not always convincingly.<> The director Trip Cullman's handling of the actors is deft, especially in the first scene. Mark Wendland's set design, which provides three locations all done in the style of a ramen house, is a little monotonous, but Paloma Young's costumes, Ben Stanton's lighting, and Elisheba Ittoop's sound are all solid. Feiffer is one of our more consistently interesting playwrights, with a sense of humor that seems to have come through her patrilineal line. (Consider the following exchange. Guy: "I really like you." Cat: "You barely know me." Guy: "That's what I like about you." It's right out of a classic Jules Feiffer strip.) But The Pain of My Belligerence is one of her lesser works. It's too much belligerence, and not enough pain.

Next to the ladies of Then They Forgot About the Rest, now at INTAR, Cat and her woes are cool by comparison. Georgina Escobar's play is set in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, following a chain of ecological disasters. Nobody wants to go outside, especially during periods known as Code Brown. Deer have disappeared, but monstrous insects have taken their place. One of the characters has lived next door to the toilet-to-tap water plant. Women participating in a demonstration were sprayed with a mysterious substance that has caused fifty percent of the female population to suffer from early-onset dementia. According to the program, if not the script, an event called The Sinking has caused New York, Florida, and California to, well, sink, rather like Atlantis, the Lost Continent.

The play consists of two intersecting plot lines. In one, a youngish woman named Jeanie Rosenblum has signed up for a sketchy-sounding medical trial for a Big Pharma company. The firm is on the verge of releasing a memory blocker called Alleviate, but Dr. Locke, who developed it, wants to take the concept further, devising a treatment that replaces one's traumatic memories with something more anodyne. (He does this via one of those metal helmets -- it looks like a colander on Jeane's head -- that one associates with 1950s science-fiction films.) Jeanie, it seems, saw her daughter killed in a car accident and can't get over it. Looking at her hands, all she sees is blood, so she is reduced to wearing opera gloves, day and night.

Looking on in dismay as Jeanie signs up for treatment is her sister, Sybil, an advertising copy writer. And, as it happens, the rest of the characters in the play work in an advertising agency, whipping up campaigns to sell whiskey even as the planet goes to hell in a handcart. It's a pretty steamy place, too, populated as it is by "three bisexual Latinas," as one of the characters notes. Roe, the boss, was in a four-year relationship with Jules, but the latter was dumped for Stags, who is carrying on in such bizarre fashion that one can only conclude that she has been treated by Dr. Locke. Sybil ends up working for Roe, taking part in a brainstorming session in which everyone dreams up rape scenarios that would justify taking Alleviate, the forgetting pill.

Escobar has a vivid imagination and, at times, Then They Forgot About the Rest leaves one wondering what life might be like in the unpredictable future if climate change isn't addressed and capitalism is allowed to continue in unfettered fashion. But as Jeanie slips into a series of fantasy scenarios and as the interactions at the ad agency become ever more melodramatic, the play itself sinks -- into incoherence. It doesn't help that none of the characters are terribly interesting or that Escobar's sense of humor runs toward the puerile. (We hear too much from the other male character, Sebs, an artist, whose childhood was marked by incontinence and a relationship with a pet bird known as Pee Pee Baby.)

At least David Mendizábal's direction keeps things moving, although he allows an awful lot of shouting from his cast. Among them, the standout is Danielle Alonzo as the steely Roe, who believes that even if the world might be ending, work will make you free. The production benefits from an environmental production -- by Christopher and Justin Swader -- that places the action inside an old-fashioned corrugated metal bomb shelter, filled with odd details that give it a surrealist twist. So all-encompassing is the design that the lighting designer, Cha See, must have been hard-pressed to do her job; so much the better, then, that she finds so many creative ways of delivering various looks. Also fine are Enrico de Trizio's music and sound design, the latter of which includes an especially reverberant earthquake. Asa Benally's costumes are solid.

We are, no doubt, going to be hearing more from playwrights with environmental concerns, but here's hoping that the dystopias to come are more worthy of the alarm we should all be feeling. Then They Forgot About the Rest is a random collection of ills tied to a sometimes-confusing scenario in which women seem to be the principal targets of nature's malaise. In Escobar's brave new world, the rain does not fall on the just and the unjust alike. -- David Barbour


(23 April 2019)

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