The Pain and the Itch
The Pain and the Itch, now onstage at The Theatre @ Boston Court, is a mess. Though this dark comedy features witty intelligent dialogue along with intriguing multi-layered plotting, its pleasures vanish in inverse proportion to our growing discomfort with its subject matter.
The play’s title describes the symptoms of a deliberately shocking plot point: Even though an affluent young couple is far more consumed with their own personal issues, their 5-year old daughter Kayla (Ava Feldman and Olivia Aaron on alternate nights) has a venereal disease.
As the play opens, it is January and snow is falling. Kelly and Clay (Vonessa Martin and Brad Price) are entertaining Mr. Hadid (Kevin Vavasseur in a thankless but well done role), a cabbie whose wife was in the couple’s employ until unfounded accusations of stolen bread ended somehow in her death. He is there, a polite, sad and oddly detached figure seeking answers which, like the one about the source of Kayla’s itch, are in short supply.
Then there is the Thanksgiving dinner from last November. The play jumps back and forth between the two evenings, making a complete jumble of time. (In interviews with the creative staff, it was said how Mr. Norris "trusts the audience" to sort things out, which is often said by playwrights weary of figuring out their own muddles.)
Though Mr. Hadid inexplicably remains onstage during the flashbacks, Thanksgiving was a family affair attended by Kayla’s uncle, a plastic surgeon (Scott Lowell), his energetic 17-year old Russian girlfriend (Katie Marie Davies), and family matriarch Carol (Jennifer Rhodes).
The brothers are still embroiled in unresolved childhood rivalry, played out like an old Smothers Brothers routine. The source of their emotional baggage, along with most of their other adult problems, is clearly their dimwitted mom, a hausfrau so devoted to educational television that she imagines herself cultured, erudite, and America’s cheerful ambassador of multicultural good will, portfolio conferred with her annual pledge to PBS.
Much of Norris’ best writing is in lampooning this and other hallucinations of 21st Century American liberalism. His characters live inside a cocoon of post-modern Babbittry where easy answers and kneejerk responses are believed to make moral rectitude out of good intentions.
Useful introspection thus occluded by smug self-satisfaction, the characters easily stumble into ethical miasmas even while demonstrating their love of diversity with bright-eyed interest in Mr. Hadid’s exotic culture, imitating parental love by indulging their child’s need for attention with toys and Blu-ray cartoons, or, in Clay’s case, feigning fatherly brawn with his hunt for the supposed rodent who’s been eating the ripe avocados in the kitchen bowl.
As long as their own failings can be ignored or lumped in with the other ills of the world and blamed on Republican parsimony, then the adults are free to indulge themselves in their own vanities and self-delusions. This is where pain and itching really sets in.
Little Kayla runs around the set screeching like a Banshee, bringing the glories of childhood chaos into the pat world of the adults’ crumbling complacency. In that respect she’s a perfect character, but the business of her venereal disease is creepy on the page and nearly pornographic in realization.
Appearing nearly constantly with her little dress pulled up over her buttocks and her hand thrust down her panties, the child playing Kayla (Ms. Feldman the night Edge attended) is used in an unsavory manner. The plot point is shocking enough without the crude blocking, and leaving the little girl silently onstage during the ugliest scenes where adults are hurling f-bombs at each other and portraying domestic violence takes one right out of the moment and wondering if CPS shouldn’t be called in.
Despite these distressing choices, director Damaso Rodriguez’ work is by and large excellent, not the least part of which is his casting.
You despise Vonessa Martin’s icy smugness and her life-choking notion of parenting. Her portrayal is completely unsympathetic and right on the money. The brothers are two sides of the same coin: Brad Price, the father, is a nattering victim of feminism, p-whipped almost beyond recognition, hiding his rage behind insipid passivity and his defiant collection of porn. His M.D. brother (Scott Lowell) is an outgoing and cynical professional, whose own brand of misogyny erupts in his vicious mocking abuse of his ditsy girlfriend.
Katie Marie Davies’ tasty little Russian is a star turn; she creates a Chaplinesque character by fleshing out a comic opera caricature with deep layers of humanity. Jennifer Rhodes’ matriarch is a seething mass of cardboard motherhood -- selfish and resentful -- the kind of mother whose every cup of warm nourishing soup is served with a generous dollop of self-pity.
The gorgeous set is by Kurt Boetcher, and Leah Piehl provides the costumes for the handsome production. Lighting designer Christie Wright is here thanked for trying to illume the play’s confusions with subtle lighting cues, but owing to the playwright’s deliberate convolutions her efforts seem more like random brownouts.
Performances at The Theater at Boston Court through August 23. 70 N. Mentor Ave, Pasadena. For tickets and more info, visit www.bostoncourt.com