The Siegel Column

4½ Stars: The Pain and the Itch

Rare is the play that deftly filets the complacent American liberal. The Pain and the Itch by Bruce Norris is just such a play. Hypocrisy gets a darkly comic send-up here in a work of searing honesty, and Norris, better known as an actor, may soon be in even greater demand as a playwright.

The play unfolds as a sort of mystery, at least insofar as it is purposefully slow in revealing the identity and purpose of the foreigner (Peter Jay Fernandez) who is meeting with Clay (Christopher Even Welch) and his wife, Kelly (Mia Barron), in their home. As they speak to him, they slowly – even reluctantly – begin to tell the story of a recent holiday gathering of their family. The play starts to spin into action as flashbacks literally interact with the present. In other words, characters conjured into being sometimes remain in the present as the story continues in its bull's eye trajectory.

The Pain and the Itch of the title ostensibly belong to Clay and Kelly's little daughter. She has some sort of troubling condition in her private parts that has Clay, in particular, very worried. He's a house husband, taking care of the little girl, and he feels especially responsible for his child's welfare. But the pain in this story goes much deeper than her rash and it's shared by everyone in this story. And the itch to blame others for that pain is going to be scratched ...

At the family gathering, we are introduced to Clay's mother, Carol (Jayne Houdyshell), an older woman teeming with constantly misdirected maternal warmth. Her other son – the favorite – has also come to dinner. He's a misanthropic plastic surgeon named Cash (Reg Rogers) who has brought along his very young and outspoken Russian émigré girlfriend, Kalina (Aya Cash). The word dysfunctional does not do this family justice. The two brothers could not despise each other more, their pent-up childhood animosities the fuel for their churning antipathy. Kelly is an obsessive, controlling wife. In the midst of this, Kalina seems like a breath of fresh air until you discover the baggage she carries from her harrowing childhood in Russia.

And that foreigner? Is he there to buy their house? Is he from a social agency because of the daughter's rash? Is he a marriage counselor? You eventually learn his identity and purpose, but suffice to say, in this carefully woven play, his part of the story carries a powerful impact.

The play is directed with verve and imagination by Anna D. Shapiro, with an exquisite set design by Dan Ostling. The costume design by Jennifer von Mayrhauser fits all of the characters like a second skin. Most impressive, however, after Norris' stunning script, are the performances. Christopher Evan Welch paints his character with a palette that overflows with emotions; it's a tour de force of pain and suffering set to (our) laughter. Reg Rogers has a patent on playing dissolute characters; he's perfect as Cash. Mia Barron is wonderfully wound up, while Jayne Houdyshell is a magnificent actress who captures and holds her characters' contradictions without losing sight of her innate humanity. Aya Cash brings energy to the play that is essential, just as Peter Jay Fernandez brings both dignity and a sense of mysterious foreboding to this important new play.

The Pain and the Itch runs through October 8 at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 16 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues. Tickets at

Two for the Road

Here are two brief reviews of shows that have just finished their New York runs. Both have a lot going for them and, as a consequence, they both deserve lives outside of New York in productions around the country ...

4 Stars: Foggy Bottom

Contemporary comic taste shows a clear preference for satire and irony, so farce often comes across as decidedly old-fashioned. In a recent production from the Abingdon Theatre Company by James Armstrong, however, we came upon a play called Foggy Bottom that invigorated the farce with political satire and an ironic point of view.

In a government office in Washington, D.C., a lowly bureaucrat pretends to have the power to grant green cards to desperate foreign females and uses that power to have sex with them. As played with bad boy charm by Dan Cordle, this monster manages to be slyly appealing, especially as his three different victims seem happy to oblige him. Our anti-hero is surely courting disaster as his wife (Denise Bessette) keeps interrupting his trysts by calling on the phone, and his buttoned-up best friend and colleague (played with comic precision by Jeremy Beiler) keeps warning him to quit.

The increasing numbers of women who come in and out of the office in that one night, having to hide behind various doors, is pretty standard stuff. ,But thanks in part to Rob Urbinati's crisp and pointed direction, there is something fascinating going on here. The women are all political refugees, having either seen or suffered some very legitimate and frightening horrors. We hear their stories and watch as our sex-mad hero ignores them, which is oddly funny. The comedy, you see, is purposefully uneasy.

The playwright ups the ante when a fourth woman (the excellent Maja Wampuszyc) enters and turns out to be a suicide bomber who wants to blow herself and the President of the United States to smithereens. Her own story is a microcosm of American neglect; we understand what drives her desire for revenge. This should not be funny. But in its own darkly satiric way it is. Our two diplomats comically try to escape, as do the three other women, causing doors to fly open and slam shut within the verities of farce. Yet another unexpected character arrives, and all ends peacefully. But not happily, which is a refreshingly original and honest finale to this surprising piece.

4 Stars: Circus Contraption's Grand American Traveling Dime Museum

This darkly appealing vaudeville concoction just closed at Theatre for a New City. Like Absinthe at the Spiegeltent (previously reviewed in this column), Circus Contraption's show is a series of goofy acts that are as strange as they are funny. Uneven, but intriguing, it's a show with a Tim Burton sensibility but without his budget. The players are appealing, the music is especially wonderful, and one leaves this circus feeling as if something special has just occurred – even if you're not quite what it was.

Barbara and Scott Siegel