The Pain and the Itch
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 16, 2006
One of the characters in Bruce Norris's new play The Pain and the Itch remarks that a secret of great acting is for an actor to really love the character s/he is playing. The line is uttered in passing and has very little bearing on the main ideas of Norris's script, but it stopped me cold. If that's true, I thought, how are these actors able to do such good jobs in this play?
Because surely no one could like any of the people in this 21st century indictment-cum-comedy of manners; surely Norris intends us to hate most of them, in fact, and so does his director, Anna D. Shapiro. As soon as I gazed upon the living room setting—designed to order by Dan Ostling—I knew that I personally wouldn't ever want to spend time there: it's a room filled with expensive, dysfunctional furniture, the kind that seems created NOT to be sat on or to feel comfortable. Clay and Kelly, the unhappily married couple who own said furniture, have decorated their home with an eye to impress, and that turns out to be almost all we need to know about them.
The story concerns how Clay and Kelly and their guests at Thanksgiving dinner inadvertently managed to bring about the death of the 42-year-old wife of Mr. Hadid, a Muslim gentleman who sits somewhat incongruously in said living room and to whom Clay & Co. relate, in flashbacks, implausibly, the events we witness from our seats in the audience. Briefly: Clay's mother, Carol, a schoolteacher; his brother, Cash, a rich plastic surgeon; and Cash's current girlfriend, Kalina, a beautiful blonde Russian bimbo, are visiting for the holiday. Kelly is a high-powered executive and supports her family. Clay is a stay-at-home dad whose main job is caring for their four-year-old daughter, Kayla. To say that there is tension among these folks is an understatement: Clay and Kelly are at odds much of the time; Clay is enormously resentful of his brother's success and their mother's apparent favoritism for Cash; Kelly can't stand Kalina and is clearly exasperated by her forgetful, motor-mouth mother-in-law.
Kayla has a terrible rash in what the script delicately refers to as her private area. Clay seems determined to ensure that Kelly not find out about it and enlists Cash, who is a kind of doctor, to examine her. Clay is convinced that there is some rodent or animal in the house that may be the cause of his daughter's condition; later, suspicion is cast on their housekeeper, who turns out to be Mrs. Hadid. I will leave it to you to discover, if you care to, how that fact leads to her death and to a whole series of sordid admissions that are clearly not Mr. Hadid's business. (I'll state further that the conclusion that Norris leads the audience—or at least led me, anyway—to reach at the end of Act One turns out to be a gigantic red herring.)
What's the point of all this? Apparently, only this—that rich, privileged white guys like Cash—who flaunt their beautiful bimbo girlfriends but treat them like dirt and who overconsume voraciously and carelessly at the expense of the rest of the world—are terrible; and that not-as-rich, not-as-privileged white guys like Clay—who pretend to care passionately about the poor and liberal causes and all that stuff but actually deeply desire to be rich and privileged and in fact do not help or even care about those who are less well-off—are just as terrible. Norris makes this point immediately in The Pain and the Itch and then keeps making it; for example, Mr. Hadid asks Clay pointed questions such as how much his expensive Italian shoes cost (which Clay refuses to answer), just so we remember that Clay has lots of stuff while Mr. Hadid, exploited minority person, has much less.
Various plot points, including the eponymous one surrounding poor Kayla's condition, could take the play down another, more interesting path. But they don't: Norris piles so much baggage onto his hapless leading man Clay that it's a wonder Christopher Evan Welch, cast in this horrifically thankless role, doesn't keel over from the leaden weight of it all. Norris fails to create people we can believe in or care about, though he does succeed in creating some caricatures that we can laugh at in Carol, Cash, and Kalina (and, not at all coincidentally, it is the hugely accomplished Jayne Houdyshell, the happily unmannered Reg Rogers, and the refreshingly engaging Aya Cash, in those roles respectively, who win the audience's favor and turn in the most agreeable performances).
Shapiro's staging and the production values provided by Playwrights Horizons are superlative. But the play, which seems to want to tackle some interesting issues, is a terrible let-down.