The Pain and the Itch

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 23, 2009

The cast of Company One’s "The Pain and the Itch."
The cast of Company One’s "The Pain and the Itch."  

The bill from the have-nots comes due in a big way, despite how hard Clay's family tries to wiggle out of paying it in Bruce Norris's nasty but nonetheless amusing The Pain & The Itch.

The Boston premiere of the contentious play from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and New York's Playwright's Horizon gets a satisfying production from Company One that pushes all the character's buttons. This comedy of manners satirizing the affectations of the self indulgent American middle class with its pretensions and racist preconceptions continues through April 4 at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theater, 539 Tremont St., in the South End.

The notion of taking a social class down a peg or two through drama goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but contemporary audiences are more familiar with French playwright Moliere whose zingers aimed at hypocrisy produced "Tartuffe," among other classics of a pen dripping in poison. Even Shakespeare got his in with "Much Ado About Nothing." Fast forward to the present day with Pinter's creepy "The Homecoming" about family values or David Mamut's satire on class, "Boston Marriage," whose witty story of a sexual alliance between two women erupts into a shocking crudity.

Playwright Norris structures Clay's family's comeuppance in an unusual way, for even with the mysterious Mr. Hadid's sobbing inconsolably in their upscale living room as the play begins, it's not until the final ten minutes or so that the pieces fall into place revealing what has brought on his unhappiness and such angst for this family. The earnest Clay is a stay-at-home dad whose wife, the demanding Kelly, brings in the pay check from her position with a pricy law firm. They have a third grader, the adorable Kayla, who has an angry genital rash members of the family keep flipping up her dress to view, and a new born whom Kelly carries about in a sling that is part of a fashionable sweater garment she wears. On this Thanksgiving Day, the household has expanded to include Clay's mom, the confirmed liberal Carol, Clay's playboy brother, a plastic surgeon, and his girlfriend, the flamboyant, irrepressible Russian ?migr? Kalina.

A tragic-comedy that develops so erratically might set the audience to wool gathering when they can't get a handle on a story line, but director Bevin O'Gara smartly concentrated on her actors deeply plumbing the quirks of their characters. Rather than follow a dramatic arc as such, she's staged a web of anecdotes that traps your interest as you watch these individuals try to cope with pressures you may not comprehend but can accept are putting these folks through some paces.

The performances are truly engaging from Nancy Carroll as the advocate of every high minded TV show on the box and other tiresomely worthy endeavors whose memory is getting increasingly erratic to Joe Lanza as Clay, a man precariously close to losing it in face of his tiny daughter's itch and his wife's put downs along with evidence that a ravenous creature is roaming the upstairs rooms with occasional forays to take large bites out of fruit in the kitchen.

Cedric Lilly is poignant as the dignified cab driver Mr. Hadid, who listens out the endless meanderings of these privileged individuals who are patronizing in their efforts to put him at his ease. Aimee Doherty is fine as the high strung Kelly (note to hair dresser that updo with its single strand of hair laying across her forehead is irritating).Dennis Trainer, Jr. as Cash, who can't resist a smirk or two at his brother's discomforts, indulges in some sibling rivalry issues in a thoroughly believable fashion. Philana Mia is excellent as the energetic, outspoken girlfriend with a troubled past.

Little Kayla has no lines but Helen Steinman, a kind of modern day Shirley Temple in the looks department, makes her character's wants abundantly clear in a mischievous way. The part is alternately played by three children, including Helen's twin Abigail, and the slightly younger Rebecca Skyehamberg. The adults in the show can thank their lucky stars that the play didn't also call for a dog.

The sordid goings-on take place in a stylishly decorated apartment appointed with a mammoth flat screen TV among other luxury items, a perfectly designed setting for this privileged family from Christina Todesco. The costuming from Angela Jajko is also apt. "The Pain & the Itch" is a solid addition to the tradition of lampooing those people in society who deserve deflating.

The Pain and the Itch continues through April 4, 2009 at the Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston, Mass. For more information visit Company One’s website.