Unsettling is the term.
“The Pain and the Itch” from the pen of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Bruce Norris is unquestionably unsettling. Yet, in the theatre there are two distinct sources from which it is possible for such discomposure to flow.
One good, one bad.
The good variety is the result of a playwright challenging the comfort zone of the audience, assaulting firmly held belief systems, rupturing boundaries, exposing social hypocrisy. The bad sort is realized by throwing a narrative bag over the collective head of the theatre audience, spinning them viciously around then shoving them towards an incline dramatically off beam after tying their communal shoelaces together.
Norris’ play is a turbulent concoction of both of these experiences.
We open on a conflicting image. Swarthy Mr. Hadid (Joe Holt), obviously a refugee from some Third World backwater where indoor plumbing is spoken of in reverent tones, sits sobbing in a fashionable home worthy of a spread in House Beautiful, as an attractive and very American couple look on. It is as if the photography from Sam Wagstaff’s collection had been poorly fused onto a Norman Rockwell canvas.
The couple, Clay (Eric Hunicutt), your textbook liberalhouse husband, and Kelly (Beverly Hynds), his severe Über Frau and reluctant breadwinner, pepper their “guest” with the smallest of small talk that echoes the starkly staccato dialogue of John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation”.
Here Norris exposes to us three souls sharing the same room, but inhabiting the bleak isolation of three, far flung and separate universes. From their strained discourse we gleam Kelly, and especially Clay, are gravely concerned by some…creature that is trespassing their garden and marring the beautiful avocados growing there with its fang marks.
The word avocado derives from the Aztec language Nahvati and “ahuácat” meaning “testicle” calling to mind the green fruit’s shape, and explaining why Clay grows more obsessed with the fruit destroying critter as his manhood’s vulnerability increases during the action of the play.
From here we are tumbled into a disjointed series of flashbacks from a recent attempt at celebrating a normal Thanksgiving dinner where we meet the family. There’s Clay’s older brother Cash (Trent Dawson) a loud, maniacal plastic surgeon whose volume control is stuck at “bellow”. Carol, Clay and Cash’s mother, (April Adams) who is a constant stream of chatter fluttering from topic to topic with a DaDa like discord. Accompanying Cash is his insignificant other, Kalina (Beth Triffon), a sexy Russian import with a dark past, struggling to understand the commotion raging on all sides of her. All in all we find a family so dysfunctional that compared to them the Macbeths would be just the “cute” couple down the road with the funny accents.
Clay vents about his brother’s Republican politics, Cash rants about – well everything, while Kalina bubbles about America in her broken English, and their mother drifts happily in the abyss of her own alienation droning on about the film actors she loves, whose names she is never quite able to recall. Oh! And periodically Kayla (Ava Bianchi), Kelly and Clay’s little daughter zips into the scene to threaten some one with a screwdriver or hypodermic needle.
There are refrains Norris returns to with consistency.
There is a good deal of thoughtless discussion concerning what each of the character’s think, or at least thinks they think resulting in the audience not really knowing what to think themselves.
“If all you eat is junk food, how can you expect to feel good about yourself?”
“I watch Bridges of Madison County when I want to ejaculate.”
“I don’t need to think, I just need to protect the health of my child.”
“I don’t think our lives should be so hung up on biology.”
During all of this, the disembodied Mr. Hadid, hovers about the sidelines observing the mounting chaos with the same swelling sense of perplexity that is engulfing the audience.
“You want to be more like us,” Clay intones to him. “But we’re a bunch of assholes.”
Norris’ play is not an easy ride for either the audience nor do I imagine the actors. The tension that the show opens with never flags, the shrillness never softens. The playwright backs the audience into a corner, and, like an angry drunk in a bar, there’s no escaping. This is what Norris no doubt chooses to do, whether it is where an audience would choose to go through is another question.
The production itself is of the first caliber. Director Jennifer Chambers is a study in precision, with each moment painstakingly chiseled and polished. Chambers has conducted her actors with comparable finesse. The script makes prodigious demands of the ensemble in pacing as well as energy and they do not falter in meeting them.
Both Hunicutt and Dawson excel as the two brothers who would make Cain and Abel cringe. Likewise, Hynds and Triffon excel, whose characters’ resentments of each other seems to swell every time one of them is so impertinent as to take a breath. Holt suffers from having the least developed role of the piece, seemingly written merely to provide the playwright with an albatross to hang about the necks of the piece’s other characters. Nevertheless Holt provides the part with more substance than I feel the writer did.
The most fully realized of the roles is that of Carol, the family’s confused careworn gritless matriarch. April Adams fulfills the role requirements, and then exceeds them. “Why do you not listen?” is another of the many refrains found within this work, which only in Adams’ performance seems to evolve into a textual theme, through her obsession with famous actors.
What makes a good actor?
Carol believes she knows.
And like your character.
When understood and applied these two injunctions make for a solid performance. When understood and applied these two injunctions also make for a good life. Two claims none of the characters in Norris’ play can make.
Chambers and Producer Racquel Lehrman enlisted an excellent support crew in Joel Daavid (set designer), Ric Zimmerman (lighting), Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski (audio designer) and Shannon A. Kennedy (costumer) which is demonstrated by a strikingly handsome staging.
The flaw in an otherwise commendable feat is one that may not have been within Chambers’ sway to fix, but when taking on any production, a director accepts the heady responsibility of serving as midwife to a play’s potential. This very problematic play lacked that. Norris places the opening in his dark comedy on an emotional plateau then leaves it there. The relentless pitch and tempo of the piece imposes on an audience the obligation of endurance. This burden impedes the foremost objective of all theatrical experiences – communication.
The prime element of drama is expressed in the “conflict and challenges of a journey”.
Hills and valleys.
Falling and rising,
Plummeting downwards, fighting upwards.
Trapped below, compelled to climb.
But a plateau does not offer these.
A plateau is a level playing field.
A plateau is a flat line.
In the end, impressed by the feat, one is still puzzled by the effort, wondering why Norris wanted us to see this piece and what he expected we would carry away with us. The work is intelligent, absurd, crotchety, and impassioned. But in the final analysis, the promise of a very promising play has not been met.
The Pain and the Itch
7456 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(between Fairfax and La Brea)
Performances: Oct. 26 – Dec. 1
Fridays @ 8 p.m.: Nov. 1, 8, 15, 22 (dark Nov. 29)
Saturdays @ 8 p.m.: Nov. 2, 9. 16. 23. 30
Sundays @ 7 p.m.: Nov. 3, 10, 17, 24; Dec. 1
General Admission: $25
Students with ID: $15