Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

All That Scratching...

August 05, 2009

The cast of The Pain and the Itch
Photo: Ed Krieger/Theater at Boston Court 2009

Bruce Norris’ recent dark family comedy The Pain and the Itch is finally receiving a West Coast outing this month thanks to the combined forces of Pasadena’s Boston Court Theater in collaboration with the Furious Theater Company. Considering the rather mixed reviews the piece had in Chicago, New York, and London, the play’s longevity is beginning to suggest that it might actually have legs. In fact, given the rather prestigious spaces that have hosted Norris’ grizzly morality tale so far, that two relatively smaller community theater organizations in Los Angeles have banded together to produce it is notable. They’ve done a very solid job overall and make as convincing an argument as anyone else has on the value of the piece.

And get this - The Pain and the Itch has a plot. I mean a real one with an arc and loose ends to be tied up and everything. It's not a psychological portrait or a character study. It concerns the events of two family meetings in a suburban upper middle class home, one on Thanksgiving, and another much later when the family members recount the events of the prior evening to another character whose life has been mysteriously and tragically upended by them. The characters include a young professional couple with stay-at-home dad Clay, who cares for his toddler daughter and newborn son while his wife, Kelly, works. They’ve invited over his PBS-obsessed mother as well as his plastic surgeon brother Cash. Cash has brought his own recently immigrated Eastern European girlfriend of rapidly advancing English skills to round out the intrigue. The holiday meal goes as they usually do in such dysfunctional clans, with the added twist of several mysteries including what creature is taking bites out of the avocados, and where did little Kayla get that horrible genital rash. Both of the plays two scenes transpire simultaneously in the same space and even though the resolution of the action rests on a bit of trickery - a crucial middle segment of the narrative is omitted between acts and only played out in the end – these machinations are enjoyable to watch.

The problem with Norris’ play, though, is that it is also a morality play of sorts. It’s a biting comic satire on the hypocrisy and moral turpitude of the liberal upper middle classes. All of the central characters’ good will is so thinly wrapped in their own racism, fear, and self-loathing that sharp comic barbs lay around every turn. Norris also cleverly wraps all of this with some rather nausea inducing hints at child sexual abuse and other unpleasantries. The insults fly, and laughs are in abundance. But it’s rather an easy target and one that’s handled with the least complexity possible. The points are so hammered home that in the end the laughter is less joyful and more bitter on everybody’s part including the audience. I also thought the pacing was rather stiff in the first act as if director Dámaso Rodriguez was worried that the audience would be quickly lost without a little extra time to digest. Maybe so, but the rapid dialog exchanges sounded very stiff until after the intermission and a little warm up. The performances of the ensemble cast were good, but Katie Marie Davies gets bonus points as the ESL girlfriend who both aspires to and calls into question the American culture she now finds herself in. Fractured accents can be milked for big laughs when done consistently and she repeatedly steals every scene that she's in. There's plenty to recommend The Pain and the Itch. It's just not incredibly sharp in its excavations of the cultural landscape.

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