Toxic Men Get All the Attention. But Not in These Plays.
There’s something feral about Jud Fry, and something pathetic, too.
Jud is the bad guy in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” — the farmhand who makes Laurey, the heroine, feel threatened in her own home. And in Daniel Fish’s indie-auteur take on the musical, at Circle in the Square, he resembles nothing so much as one of those furiously entitled contemporary outcasts who react to a woman’s rejection by committing some horrifically violent crime.
Still, I couldn’t stop myself. Looking at his watery, pink-rimmed eyes, I felt a pang of pity for him.
Misdirected empathy on my part, I know, but I don’t remember being so uncomfortable last fall, when the show ran at St. Ann’s Warehouse. I suspect I owe my newly acute awareness of it to two current Off Broadway plays: Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s “Do You Feel Anger?” at the Vineyard Theater, and Halley Feiffer’s “The Pain of My Belligerence” at Playwrights Horizons.
“Belligerence” is still in previews, so I have to be a little coy about it, but “Anger” absolutely staggered me — sent me off afterward rethinking my life, examining my own sympathies. Both pitch-black comedies, they show the ways that women are conditioned to feel for even wildly toxic men, while doggedly discounting their own needs, their own suffering and that of other women.
“I’m sure they don’t mean to make you feel unsafe,” Sofia, the empathy coach in “Anger,” tells a woman who is scared of her male colleagues — a menacing bunch, actually, including one notorious for throwing tantrums. For all her professional expertise, Sofia is a product of the culture; in myriad everyday situations, she, too, prioritizes the perspectives of men.
On influential New York stages lately, though, the perspectives of women are shifting the discourse. Even Broadway shows — “Kiss Me, Kate,” elegantly updated to excise the sexism, and Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” — are thinking about empathy along gender lines, and who deserves it from us.
This is a welcome evolution of an art form that inherently fosters empathy — and in which it matters greatly whom we’re asked to feel for.
“Anger” and “Belligerence” are responses to the election of Donald J. Trump, and to the feminist debate that has been simmering ever since. To judge by their titles, ire is the top note in each play, and they are in fact plenty angry — though aware that anger is one of those emotions that women are less free than men are to display.
(“For years, when a woman has yelled commandingly on stage she has been greeted with laughter,” the critic Susannah Clapp wrote recently in the Guardian, noting a change. “Perhaps audiences are losing the assumption that any woman in a rage must be a harridan.”)
Ms. Nelson-Greenberg sets her absurdist “Anger” in the office of a collection agency, where Sofia arrives to give the staff — a handful of crude, obstructionist men and a quietly terrified woman who feigns laughter at their jokes — remedial lessons in emotional literacy.
It’s an environment so female-unfriendly that when Sofia tells the boss, Jon, that the women’s bathroom has nowhere to dispose of tampons, he responds with total incomprehension: This, like so many elementary female concerns, is foreign to him.
“O.K.,” he says, trying to puzzle it out. “And is that a riddle?”
It’s a brilliant line, but it might seem over the top until you remember that NASA engineers, in the 1980s, guessed that Sally Ride would need 100 tampons for a week in space — a story that resurfaced in March, when the agency kicked one astronaut off what was to have been its first all-female spacewalk because it didn’t have a spacesuit in her size. So: not such an exaggeration after all.
“Belligerence,” which opens on April 22, unspools over three presidential Election Days: 2012, when Cat, a magazine writer played by Ms. Feiffer, is having her first date with Guy, a sexy but poisonous married man who warns her repeatedly that he’s bad news (for one thing, he’s a biter); 2016, when she has been subjugating herself to him for four dysfunctional years; and 2020, when we see the crippling damage their relationship has wrought.
The playwright has said that she wanted her play to be “the theater equivalent” of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person.” A short story about a young woman who imagines a poignant vulnerability lurking beneath the aggressive hostility of the largely unappealing older guy she’s dating, it went viral when it ran in The New Yorker in late 2017.
Ms. Feiffer told me that she would like “Belligerence” to “provide the same kind of sense of connection and catharsis the short story did — and hope: ‘I no longer need to keep engaging in these patterns that are hurting me and others and our culture at large.’ ”
She and Ms. Nelson-Greenberg, a student in the M.F.A. program at the University of California San Diego, are both interested in how women’s internalized misogyny becomes abnegation and self-loathing.
Neither lets women off the hook for betraying other women — including, in “Anger,” Sofia’s mother, who is going through a traumatic divorce. Sofia’s unseen father is egregiously at fault, but Sofia ghosts her sweet mom and keeps in contact with her sociopathic dad. Perversely, her empathy lies with him.
That’s the way we’ve been socialized to be, but even the revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” at Studio 54, is resisting that tendency. Amanda Green’s sensible tweaks to the text turn Kate’s humiliating scene at the end, about what women owe to their men, into a compassionate scene about what lovers owe to one another. For seven decades, it was acceptable to withhold empathy from Kate. Not anymore.
In “Constitution,” at the Helen Hayes Theater, Ms. Schreck plays herself at 15, addressing an American Legion hall full of men. She tells them, in an unfalteringly sunny tone, about a fantasy she had as a child — of how to talk a man out of raping or murdering her. (This play, too, is a comedy. There’s a lot of fairly shattering comedy coming from female playwrights these days.)
“You say, ‘I’m here to murder you,’” she says, “and I say, ‘No. Think about this for a moment. Just like you, I am a human being.’ And then you see me for the first time as a human being and you say, ‘You’re right! Oh, my God, you are a human being!’”
Simple, no? Woman = human being.
Like “Constitution,” which scrutinizes the nation’s founding document to see whose interests it leaves out (initially at least, anyone who wasn’t a white male property owner), “Anger” and “Belligerence” examine a culture constructed to sympathize with men, to value them more highly, to see women as inherently less deserving of consideration.
Both plays are full of harmful behaviors made up of individual actions that are often unremarkable. As in life — and as in “Cat Person” — the pattern is what’s alarming. Yet it can be difficult to see a pattern whose components are commonplace.
“Nothing happens in a split second,” a woman named Janie says near the end of “Anger,” when the wackiness of the play’s tone has given way to something more exalted and devastating. “One tiny moment after one tiny moment turns into a big moment. So it’s hard to blame anyone in one of those tiny moments — because it’s hard to even recognize it as a moment in the first place!”
There are moments it’s easy to recognize, though, and this is one of them, when the voices of female playwrights are elucidating a pathology that skews all our sympathies — leaving us feeling a reflexive twinge for guys like Jud Fry, onstage and in the world.
Theater isn’t known for lighting-quick responses to cultural change, but this shift is happening fast. Let’s make a pattern of it. Woman = human being, indeed.