Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

The Pain and the Itch

Brad Price, Scott Lowell, Jennifer Rhodes, Kevin Vavasseur, Ava Feldman
and Vonessa Martin

With The Pain and the Itch, two highly regarded Pasadena theatres combine forces for the first time. The resulting co-production of The Theatre @ Boston Court and Furious Theatre Company has nearly everything one might want—the acting is spot-on, the direction tight, the set impressive, the costumes pitch perfect, the lighting and sound evocative. The problem is that the play isn't very good.

It's a shame, really. The program notes confess that Boston Court and Furious got together on this one for economic reasons, but the pairing seems a good artistic match as well. Both companies are at their best with provocative, sometimes disturbing plays—put the two together on the right play and you can get a deliciously harrowing experience. The Pain and the Itch just isn't the right play.

It could be called "A Dysfunctional Family Thanksgiving." Start with Kayla, the four-year-old girl. Kayla runs around the house shrieking gleefully, and, somewhat worrisomely, spends a lot of time with her dress hiked up and her hand in her panties. Her father, Clay, is troubled enough by this to ask his brother, a doctor, if he wouldn't mind taking a look at her before dinner to make sure she's okay. Uncle Cash obliges. Cash is one of those characters who is great to watch but probably lousy to know. His sarcastic and acerbic wit adds a great deal of comedy to the proceedings, but he sometimes pushes too far and his flashes of inappropriate anger suggest it would be wise not to get too close. Cash has also brought his substantially younger girlfriend to Thanksgiving, the relatively-recent immigrant Kalina. Kalina's attempts to play with Kayla keep running up against the rules set by Kelly, Kayla's mom. Pretending to have a gunfight with the girl is too violent; putting lipstick on her is too objectifying. Kelly is so worried about raising Kayla according to all of the rules of political correctness, she seems oblivious to the fact that the little girl is just having fun. Throw in grandma Carol, whose occasional memory lapses result in her inability to tell a joke ... about Alzheimer's, and you have every necessary ingredient for a family meltdown. Cash and Clay revisit childhood wounds (inflicted by each other, as well as their parents); Cash explodes at Kalina for her errors in English; Clay and Kelly clearly have issues with Kelly being the breadwinner; the family fights about politics; several people say incredibly racist things (but with the best of liberal intentions); and, through it all, little Kayla runs around scratching herself.

But there's nothing more to it—it's just a bunch of largely unlikeable people acting selfishly. The only thing remotely disquieting about the proceedings is the fact that everything is happening in front of a four-year-old girl. There's a small mystery here—the presence of one Mr. Hadid, who is not actually present at the Thanksgiving dinner, but is in the room all the same, as the play tells the story of the dinner to Mr. Hadid in something of a flashback. It raises the question of who Mr. Hadid is, exactly, and why the family thinks it is necessary to air all of their dirty laundry in front of him. But even here, the structure of Bruce Norris's play lets us down. Things finally get a bit interesting just before intermission, as we get a hint of Mr. Hadid's purpose, and events at Thanksgiving start coming to a head. And then, after intermission, the play picks up several hours later, the crises have dissipated, and, in fact, Mr. Hadid has to remind the family, at the end of the play, that they've left out the one thing he wants to know. Eventually, all is revealed, but it just isn't enough to justify the two acts we've spent watching unpleasant people being unpleasant.

It's well done, though, it really is. The cast is terrific, with particularly noteworthy work from Scott Lowell as jovial Cash, Katie Marie Davies as well-intentioned (but English-impaired) Kalina, and Jennifer Rhodes as "what was that actor's name again?" Carol. All three are especially good because they don't overplay the comedy inherent in their characters—it could be so easy for them to take the low road and go for obvious laughs; instead, they keep it as real as Vonessa Martin and Brad Price's Kelly and Clay, making for a wholly plausible family. (You know people like this—you may even be related to them.) Director Dámaso Rodriguez gets points for this, as well as for delicately handling having a young child on stage in a play you certainly wouldn't want a young child seeing. Rodriguez also expertly directs the audience's attention where he wants it; sometimes Mr. Hadid seems to disappear into the furniture, while, other times, you're keenly aware that he is in the room. Tech credits are excellent; Kurt Boetcher's upper-middle (lower-upper?) class living room tells you all about Kelly and Clay before the show even starts.

The Boston Court/Furious partnership is clearly a good one. This first joint venture is a sign that, even when the economy doesn't force sharing resources, these two companies can do great things together. They just need better material.

The Pain and the Itch runs at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena through August 23, 2009. For tickets and information, see or

The Theatre @ Boston Court -- Jessica Kubzansky & Michael Michetti, Artistic Directors; Michael Seel, Executive Director -- and Furious Theatre Company present The Pain and the Itch by Bruce Norris. Directed by Dámaso Rodriguez. Scenic Design Kurt Boetcher; Lighting Design Christie Wright; Sound and Video Design Doug newell; Costume Design Leah Piehl; Prop Design Shannon Dedman; Dialect coach Joel Goldes; Assistant Director Dan Steele; Production Stage Manager Rebecca Cohn; Casting Raul Clayton Staggs; Key Art Eric Pargac; Publicity Aldrich & Associates

Mr. Hadid - Kevin Vavasseur
Kelly - Vonessa Martin
Clay - Brad Price
Kayla - Olivia Aaron/Ava Feldman
Cash - Scott Lowell
Kalina - Katie Marie Davies
Carol - Jennifer Rhodes

Photo: Ed Kreiger

- Sharon Perlmutter

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