'The Pain' irritates in ways intended and not

Philana Mia (left), Jo Lanza, and Abigail Steinman in ''The Pain and the Itch.'' Philana Mia (left), Jo Lanza, and Abigail Steinman in ''The Pain and the Itch.''
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / March 21, 2009
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As you might expect from the title, "The Pain and the Itch" can be almost unbearably irritating. More than you might think, though, that's a compliment.

It's certainly the compliment that playwright Bruce Norris seems most eager to earn. His play, making its Boston debut at Company One after a controversial opening in Chicago and a calmer one in New York, takes aim at all the half-conscious prejudices and hypocrisies of liberal, white, upper-middle-class Americans - precisely the people most likely to buy a theater ticket. Not only that, but his disturbing, sexually and racially charged story centers on . . . a 4-year-old girl.

It would be hard to find a neater way to inflame the very people he's satirizing than by dragging a young child actress into the mix, and that's exactly what seems to have happened in Chicago. But Norris is cagey enough to have crafted a slippery target: Yes, a young girl has to play a child who has a nasty genital rash, but she's offstage whenever the adult characters are discussing it. So it's still disturbing - very - to watch a young girl in the midst of Norris's merrily dark satire, but we'd merely be rising to his bait to call it child abuse.

The little girl's rash not only gives the play its title but also drives the plot, though it's very late in the evening before we see just how this is so. For most of the first act, in fact, we seem to be watching a sharp but overly familiar satire of the chattering classes.

There's Clay, the sensitive stay-at-home dad of little Kayla (and of a new infant, played here by a gray flannel baby sling), and there's Kelly, the tightly wound corporate mom. We first meet them in their chic living room (exactingly realized by Cristina Todesco), where they are consoling a sobbing black man, who we'll learn is an immigrant taxi driver named Mr. Hadid, with every psychobabble cliche in the book.

It's unclear for a long time what Mr. Hadid is doing here, though Clay and Kelly soon switch into flashback mode to tell him the story of their recent, highly dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner. That gives us a chance to meet their other family members: Clay's mom, Carol, a PBS-platitude-spouting schoolteacher; his brother, Cash, a nastily cynical plastic surgeon; and Cash's girlfriend, Kalina, an underage Eastern European cosmetologist.

Each of these characters, with the occasional exception of Kalina, is a predictable type, but a frequently amusing one. And director M. Bevin O'Gara elicits precise, funny work from each actor - particularly Nancy E. Carroll as the serio-loopy Carol, Dennis Trainor Jr. as vicious Cash, and Philana Mia as Kalina, whose initial silliness hides real and terrifying depths.

Only she (and, perhaps, the solemn Mr. Hadid, an outsider as well) looks anything like a real person. For the rest, though, Norris has a sharp ear for the pretensions and absurdities of these foolish, overprivileged people, as well as a knack for shuttling between past and present to build suspense over their relationships. Was there some strange creature in the attic on Thanksgiving, and was it responsible for the gnawed avocados on the kitchen table? Why is Mr. Hadid so interested in their story? And what about that rash?

All these questions, and a few more besides, find their answers in an outrageous yet fittingly tragicomic final scene. At two full hours, though, the play takes too long to get there - especially in the overloaded first act, which keeps hammering home the jokes long after the characters have been nailed down.

That overkill produces the wrong kind of irritation - the kind that's laced with boredom. If Norris learns to trust that his audiences are as smart as he is, though, his distinctive mix of pointed humor and even more pointed political insight could acquire a healing kind of heat: still caustic, but cleansingly so.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

THE PAIN AND THE ITCH Play by Bruce Norris

Directed by: M. Bevin O'Gara. Set, Cristina Todesco. Lights, James McNamara. Sound and music, Aaron Mack. Props, Basia Goszczynska. Costumes, Angela Jajko. Video, Jordan Harrison. Presented by: Company One.

At: Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, through April 4. Tickets: $18-38. 617-933-8600,

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