Bruce Norris’ play The Pain and the Itch is rendered perfectly in a current revival at Los Angeles’ Zephyr Theatre. Perfect ensemble work by a superb cast. Perfect direction. Funny dialog. Perfect timing.
The only thing wrong with the play is the plot.
It’s Thanksgiving, 2006, in Pacific Palisades and a small family group has gathered at the home of Clay and Kelly (Eric Hunicutt and Beverly Hynds) for the holiday. There is Clay’s mother, Carol, (April Adams), a Socialist on the edge of Alzheimer’s, his brother Cash, (Trent Dawson), a ranting Republican, Cash’s girlfriend Kalina, (Beth Triffon), a damaged young woman from Eastern Europe, and Clay and Kelly’s precocious four-year-old daughter Kayla (Ava Bianchi, alternating with Kiara Lisette Gamboa), who doesn’t speak in the play, but screams often enough and loud enough to discombobulate the whole house.
And then there is the mysterious gentleman (Joe Holt) standing on the sidelines, observing. When he speaks, the lights dim. Is he a phantom or is he an invited guest? And if he is a guest, why is no place set for him at the dinner table? Spoiler alert: Each time the lights go dim, it is the following January, but nothing in the playbill, nor the play itself, ever indicates or explains that time change.
And then there is the question of who, or what, is making the curious noises on the roof?
Who is biting chunks out of the avocado?
And who stole the loaf of bread? Could it be Jean Valjean? No, that’s another story.
The evening starts out pleasantly enough, with Carol half-remembering and then forgetting past movies she has enjoyed and sharing tidbits from gossip magazines. She discusses, with patronizing enthusiasm, the customs of far-flung cultures, as gleaned from PBS and the Discovery Channel.
Kalina, for want of something better to do, chases the screaming Kayla in and out of the living room and around the house.
But soon enough old grievances start to come up and disparate opinions, both political and personal, are aired with ever-increasing malevolence. Clay and Cash engage in a brotherly wrestling match, a telling leftover from what you can see was a belligerent boyhood.
Moreover, Cash is a successful plastic surgeon while Clay is a stay-at-home dad; it’s his wife Kelly, a lawyer, who is the breadwinner for their comfortable upper-middle-class home. Which makes Clay not only defensive, but antagonistic to everyone.
There is also a rather revolting subplot which is totally unnecessary, dealing with Kayla’s vaginal rash and where it came from.
In the midst of all the chaos, however, playwright Norris has peppered the play with provocative commentary, recognizable characters and attitudes, and lots of laughs. The Pain and the Itch, which he wrote in 2004, is similar in its focus on xenophobic, unresolved race relations to his later play Clybourne Park, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012.
Though the play is engaging to the very end, thanks to the fine acting of the whole ensemble, the ending itself is a series of twists that are dumped in without forewarning or hints to make it all come together plausibly. We do find out who the mysterious stranger is. And who stole the bread. And who was chomping on the avocado.
But we never find out who or what was making the noises on the roof.
The Pain and the Itch will continue at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue, in Los Angeles, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 through December 1st. For tickets, call 323-960-5774 or visit www.plays411.com/pain.