Review: ‘The Pain and the Itch’

The unpleasant title of "The Pain and the Itch" aptly describes the suffering inflicted by Bruce Norris' nasty comedy. Although the script picks up some neurotic energy in production, there's little room for invention in Anna D. Shapiro's hyper-wired sitcom staging.

The unpleasant title of “The Pain and the Itch” aptly describes the suffering inflicted by Bruce Norris’ nasty comedy. Scribe labors mightily for language and metaphor to convey his contempt for those politically correct liberals who have it all and don’t want to share. The images he uses to portray the grasping need and greedy discontent of the narcissistic striver class he aims to satirize are gross enough to shock but carry no intrinsic comic wit. And although the script picks up some neurotic energy in production, there’s little room for invention in Anna D. Shapiro’s hyper-wired sitcom staging.

Taking aim at the picture-book American family in the play that preemed at Chi’s Steppenwolf Theater last season, Norris uses two metaphors for the creeping materialism that’s perverted its values and corrupted its social conscience. One image is the ruined avocado fruit that an unseen animal has been gnawing and leaving around the house. The other is the ugly, painful vaginal rash that afflicts Kayla (Vivien Kells, who alternates in the role with Ada Marie L. Gutierrez), the 6-year-old daughter of Clay (Christopher Evan Welch) and Kelly (Mia Barron).

Clay and Kelly are far less concerned about Kayla’s rash, which they largely ignore and refuse to discuss, than they are about the phantom avocado-gnawer, which is driving them nuts. Whining to a dignified but unidentified visitor who seems to have been brought in for consultation on the matter, they complain about the “nonhuman creature” that has invaded their home and somehow threatens their whole existence.

The obvious question is, of course, what’s at stake here? As indicated by their quietly elegant clothes (nice shopping trip by costumer Jennifer von Mayrhauser) and Dan Ostling’s lavishly appointed set of computerized kitchen and family room, Clay and Kelly would seem to have plenty of material possessions to spare an avocado or two for a starving animal. But from the shrill tone of their incessant bickering and sniping, it soon becomes clear that nothing less than perfection will do for this couple.

For Norris’ purposes, it’s their “perfect” social values that command the most scorn. In fighting over how best to hold their newborn son, Clay and Kelly nearly smother the kid. In validating Kayla’s party manners, they give the child an instant lesson in hypocrisy. And in her zeal to maintain a toxin-free household (in which toxoplasmosis is a definite no-no), Kelly has had Clay’s cat euthanized.

When they are finally exposed to people who could really use the understanding and compassion of concerned citizens such as they purport to be, Kelly and Clay turn into uncaring monsters.

As the family prepares for a Thanksgiving dinner with Clay’s mother, Carol (Jayne Houdyshell), his brother Cash (Reg Rogers) and Cash’s Russian girlfriend Kalina (Aya Cash), it becomes clear that this perfect couple is functioning on the edge of hysteria.

In fact, the entire family is on the verge of imploding — and it has something to do with mysterious Mr. Hadid (Peter Jay Fernandez), whose presence, it turns out, has nothing to do with avocados.

Not to mention Kayla’s hideous rash. Which, of course, no one does. Not until it becomes the elephant in the living room, the pachydermal plot point, as it were, that finally unlocks the mystery. But by this time, even the most engaged aud has grown weary of Norris’ endless, unfinished retelling of the event that has everyone on edge.

To his credit, scribe does an extremely clever job (with a nice assist from Donald Holder’s lighting) of handling the surreal time frame’s tricky logistics. And helmer Shapiro keeps a firm hand on who goes where in the puzzling flashbacks to the night when Clay and Kelly finally went absolutely berserk about the “invaders” on their turf.

But Norris does his thesis about the ideological hypocrisy of educated liberals no service by endlessly illustrating the hollowness of their values — and the depth of their fears.

Technically, scribe is skillful at juggling his multiple time frames; he’s less so at developing his case against the morally bankrupt know-it-all classes. Repetition, in this case, is not necessarily illumination. Not surprisingly, the solid cast does its best work in scenes and snatches of scenes that can stand on their own.

Once poor Mr. Hadid gets his chance to speak, Fernandez makes sure every awful word sinks in. Houdyshell brings much-needed intelligence to what is essentially a cartoon version of the clueless mother.

Rogers is especially adroit at keeping his wonderful air of cool arrogance as Clay’s infuriating brother, and Cash actually manages to touch some emotional chords as the outsider desperate enough to want in on this ghastly family.

But even with the shrewd acting choices that Welch and Barron make to bring some variety to the one-note song sung by Clay and Kelly, their overwrought perfs are too easy to tune out.

The Pain and the Itch

Playwrights Horizons; 198 seats; $65 top


A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in two acts by Bruce Norris. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro.


Set, Dan Ostling; costumes, Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; production stage manager, Susie Cordon. Opened Sept. 21, 2006. Reviewed Sept. 15. Running time: 2 HOURS.


Mr. Hadid - Peter Jay Fernandez Clay - Christopher Evan Welch Kelly - Mia Barron Kayla - Vivien Kells Kalina - Aya Cash Cash - Reg Rogers Carol - Jayne Houdyshell
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