Affluent or bankrupt? Oh how the terms get muddled when the chips are down. In The Pain and the Itch, the financially secure become the morally destitute, the inclusive become exclusionary, and family members transform into complete strangers before each other's eyes. It's not long before you realize that here, as occasionally in real life, all that separates the winners and losers is perspective.
In this difficult but rewarding play at Playwrights Horizons, playwright Bruce Norris makes certain that perspective is tarnished for everyone. That none of the characters can see themselves as they truly are, yet neither are they willing to even temporarily suspend their judgmental attitudes, makes for an unsavory bunch around whom to construct a two-hour comedy-drama. But while Norris's writing comes up short on the smoothness and clarity that would make the play a full-out home run, his incisive, damning take on political and social hypocrisies helps the show hit far more often than it strikes out.
The effect, though, is a cumulative one, part of an ever-expanding puzzle not easily interpreted until the show has nearly reached its zenith. Before that point, you might find yourself frustrated with Norris's preoccupations with the fluidity of time, jumping back and forth (often clumsily) between one midwinter's evening and the Thanksgiving before, at which point the lives of two families were forever altered.
As the play begins, all we know is that Muslim cab driver Hadid (Peter Jay Fernandez) is meeting with upper-middle-class white couple Clay and Kelly (Christopher Evan Welch and Mia Barron), discussing some loss that has unfortunately united them. Neither side will reveal everything, but it all seems to have begun on that Thanksgiving: A flashback transports us to that deceptively ordinary day, with Clay and Kelly hosting the holiday for Clay's brother Cash (Reg Rogers) and his young wife Kalina (Aya Cash), and Clay and Cash's mother Carol (Jayne Houdyshell). But this simple family gathering in celebration of an honored American tradition soon dissolves into passive and aggressive hostilities.
The greatest outrages anyone can commit in Clay and Kelly's home include applying makeup to their five-year-old daughter Kayla (a role shared by Ada-Marie L. Gutierrez and Vivien Kells), smoking, or using kitty litter. Yet graphic discussions of rape and pornography (of which self-described socialist Carol heartily approves) are customary. So are vicious denouncements of the Bush administration and Cash as a closeted Republican. Kalina, an Eastern Europe escapee who suffered permanent personal losses in the waning days of the U.S.S.R., can't hide her distaste of African-Americans. Chaos erupts over the possibility of an animal breaking into the family home and eating from a bowl of avocados or - even worse! - the Middle-Eastern cleaning woman taking home half a loaf of bread, yet those strange sores infecting Kayla's genitals or her being in the room for all of this are hardly concerns worth mentioning.
As the Thanksgiving troubles pile up, and Hadid's connection to it all slides into clearer and clearer focus, Norris's more subversive statements about everyday intolerance become more effectively realized. Much of the first act feels both heavy-handed and breezily written, which doesn't coddle our own prejudices and preferences quite the way Norris seems to want. Assuming you can track when and why everything is being said - which isn't always easy - even the funnier lines quickly develop an eye-rolling, get-on-with-it-already quality that doesn't abate until the second act demands you - and the people you're watching - pay closer attention to the world that is than to the world they want to be. When that happens, the play and Anna D. Shapiro's rather leisurely production tighten into something much more engaging than the bickerfest we initially perceive.
The performances don't equivalently evolve. Only Houdyshell, as a fussy mother reminiscent of her tour-de-force role as Lisa Kron's mother in Kron's Well (but with a sharper tongue), resolves Norris's rampant one-liners and fragments of a discussion into a real person. Carol's crafty concern rides a tide of outrageousness through such oddities as potentially encroaching Alzheimer's and accusations of child abuse (of an especially eyebrow-raising variety) into a deluded disappointment over the play's final twists that seem more of a logical progression than is the case with anyone else. Clay's eventual destruction has real potential but lacks bite in Welch's portrayal, while everyone else attempts to convey these people's inabilities to change without the elegant touch necessary to make it work.
Most of the production's visual and emotional elegance is provided by Dan Ostling's breathtaking living-room set. It's a marvelous mishmash of items, technological and cultural, that in their antiquated-modern collective look immediately brand these people as the understanding and accepting liberals they claim to be, but most assuredly are not. "Basically, we're about the family," Clay insists after Hadid inquires - in a typically indelicate moment - about the property tax on the house. Distrust Hadid's motives, if you like - Norris wisely ensures he displays impurities, too - but Clay can't hide from the disingenuousness his own territory reveals.
He, Kelly, and the others aren't about the family - they're about themselves. Thus it makes sense that they would create and so zealously guard a home anyone would thrill to live in, even though they're all already dead inside.
The Pain and the Itch