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Essay

From the Artistic Director: The Pain of My Belligerence

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director
January 15, 2019

“When I first saw your gallery
I liked the ones of ladies.”
Joni Mitchell, “The Gallery”

One can glean a lot about Halley’s dark, insouciant sense of humor from her play titles: How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, and The Pain of My Belligerence. These titles name the emotional landscape of their subjects with a self-awareness and extremity that tips into whimsy. But the action of her plays, which illuminates the thrilling chaos of her characters’ interior lives in all their resplendent neediness and vehemence, always feels harrowingly authentic. There has been a natural progression through each of her plays named above. How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them is a rowdy satire, simultaneously brutal and chipper. I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard marked a turning point in her work, a bravely personal deep dive into an enmeshed, co-dependent father/daughter relationship, exhibiting a maturity and originality that directly inspired us to offer her the commission that became The Pain of My Belligerence. Her next play, A Funny Thing Happened… examines how illness affects a daughter’s relationship to her mother. Filled with breezy, mordant, gallows humor, the play’s successful New York mounting helped launch several regional theater productions. With The Pain of My Belligerence, Halley turns her focus to herself. Her investigation is as frank and unsettling as anything she has written, presenting an authentic, probing, by turns hilarious and unflattering but always affecting portrait of a young woman drawn to someone she should know better than to love.

I think there are several ways to approach the bad boyfriend trope in this play. Certainly the most topical interpretation would be to locate it within our larger conversation about the deconstruction of the patriarchy.  I think our culture is hungry for nuanced, complex stories that lay bare the multiple factors that draw even self-aware, capable people into relationships that are not good for them. And what seems particularly of note here is that the guy (pointedly, Halley names this character, “Guy”) that our protagonist, Cat, is drawn to is not just transparently mendacious and self-involved. He is also charming and attentive. Even though we know in our hearts this relationship cannot end well, we also see that Guy does in fact love Cat. The toxicity that poisons their relationship cannot just be attributed to character flaws. We come to understand it comes from the culture. 

“Her investigation is as frank and unsettling as anything she has written, presenting an authentic, probing, by turns hilarious and unflattering but always affecting portrait of a young woman drawn to someone she should know better than to love.”

I think the longer view of the play looks beyond the bad relationship in it. In some ways, it reminds me of the work of Joni Mitchell. There was a time in Joni’s heyday, when rock critics of a certain sexist stripe minimized the scope of her work by fixating on the litany of failed romances that her songs chronicle. But to do so ignores the expansiveness of her work. Joni was always more interested in finding a soulmate than an adversary. She is a connoisseur of intimacy and of how the dynamics of intimacy change us. Our capacity to disappoint each other and fail ourselves seems limitless. But what matters — and this is as true for Halley as for Joni — is to steer our own vessels of selfhood through the stormy waters of our own making. The painter in Joni’s song, like the “Guy” in Halley’s play, really seems to see the women he paints and mates. But when the painting’s done, where does he look? When does she start to see him? Maybe with this song she’ll start her own gallery.  

The crucial truth is that “Guy” is not the point.  It is critical to understand this to appreciate the surprising structure of the play. It is in the last movement of the play that we come to grasp that the play’s title is self-directed. She decries no one’s belligerence but her own. And it gives her no righteous satisfaction. It gives her pain, but perhaps also a measure of pleasure and freedom in naming it.