From The Distress of My Belligerence at Playwrights Horizons.
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Halley Feiffer’s The Distress of My Belligerence is the roughly deeply interior most play that’s utterly no fun to criticize. Unfortunately, it’s additionally no fun to take a seat thru. Feiffer is effectively stripping herself down both off- and onstage: She additionally stars on this legend about a younger lady whose existence is derailed by Lyme illness and by an outrageously toxic relationship, conditions modified from her comprise skills. But her vulnerability, though it could per chance want stemmed from a non-public awakening, doesn’t translate steady into a broader theatrical revelation. The play, for all its attempts at audacious self-exposure, feels bitter and on-the-nostril.

The fleshy heavy-handedness of its title seems a giveaway. Billed as a “harrowing comedy,” Distress is extra of a cringey grind, even at its short Seventy five minutes. We commence up in an upscale Japanese restaurant, where Cat (Feiffer), a “tack-consuming and dauntless” journalist is on a foremost date with slick, tattooed Man (Hamish Linklater), one among the entrepreneurs in the wait on of the delight in eatery where they sit down. I know Cat is these adjectives since the play’s marketing blurb tells me so, and on chronicle of she writes for The Unusual Yorker. But largely, the audience is requested to pick out out any preexisting personality Cat could want had on faith, on chronicle of by the level we meet her with Man, she’s a blushing, self-deprecating cliché, all bashful cutesiness and 1/2-hearted attempts to relate her comprise intelligence in the face of his aggressive, like a flash charisma. And doubtless, she’s presupposed to be this device — Feiffer wants to research how ladies turn into complicit in their comprise denigration, how certain kinds of misogyny could be dangerously magnetic — however the play’s tone is so frantic, its characters so overstated that we’re deprived of the possibility to genuinely feel for both of these humans before being in the present day delay by them.

“I’m the devil … I’m a sociopath … I’m rotten, a serial killer, a monster,” Man tells Cat over and over for the period of their flirtation, leaping between chuckling hilarity and severe menace. “Nearly forgot,” he adds, “I’m additionally profoundly mentally ill.” Man — who additionally interrupts Cat, belittles her, tells her to pack up, grabs her face, invades her home, calls her passable as a trump card, listens to nothing she says, and bites her at some level of the play’s first scene — is giving say to the total implications of a charming abuser’s habits, apart from that there’s nothing no doubt charming about him. We’re presupposed to laugh, and one of the indispensable audience does, however the scenario is so exaggerated that the laughter feels harmful: both creepy, while you one device or the other aren’t keyed into the scene’s nastiness, or self-congratulatory while you are. Most likely it’s cathartic for some, however I couldn’t procure my plan previous a roughly discontented shrug: Factual for us — we can all peek how horrific this man is. What we can’t no doubt peek is a Man who’s greater than a satanic comic strip — or a Cat who had identity and integrity before the appearance of this man — and without these, why could also aloof we care? The roughly cruelty and complicity Feiffer’s attempting to discuss are insidious, however her play makes them ineffectually evident.

Cat and Man derive pretty extra dimension as the play progresses, however the aftertaste of Distress’s first scene is lingering and bitter. It hangs around as we peek the couple 4 years after their first date, when Cat is debilitated by Lyme illness, professionally washed up, and aloof clinging to her rakish lover who, utterly unsurprisingly, is married with kids. (She’s bitten by the tick in Scene 1, so she will be able to get two crippling ailments steady now.) The play spans eight years, with every scene taking pickle on the eve of an election — hopeful 2012, devastating 2016, and horrifying, as-yet-unknown 2020 — and by the halt, Man’s well-known other, Yuki (Vanessa Kai), has entered the stride. Kai is understanding and warranted, however the particular ticket of understanding self-assurance she’s being given to play feels love one other cliché: the luminous and long-struggling however sophisticated and unflustered well-known other of the demonic serial adulterer.

Feiffer’s attempting to build up apart the forms in her play, however the forms themselves push wait on, last depressingly tropey no topic the try at underlying humanity. And in the halt, the excruciating minute one steps that Cat lastly manages to derive are undermined by director Time out Cullman’s staging on Designate Wendland’s modular, wooden-planked build. Cat wants a steady exit — some roughly new and placing plan out of the home that signals the long leisurely breaking of some no doubt deep, no doubt toxic patterns. But Cullman doesn’t rather solve the play’s culminating physical gesture, and so the possibility of catharsis again dies on the vine. The Distress of My Belligerence wants to be a play about development, about how great it hurts to exchange, however in its queasy blend of the parodic and the interior most, it stalls out, never no doubt taking us great of anyplace.

The Distress of My Belligerence is at Playwrights Horizons thru Can also 12.

Theater: An Affair Long previous Toxic in The Distress of My Belligerence