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Political Correctness Gets Skewered in 'The Pain And The Itch'

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Having seen a couple of plays written by Bruce Norris, (Clybourne Park and The Parallelogram) I'm beginning to detect a theme in his writing. He seems to find the purportedly liberal beliefs of certain rich white people worthy of ridicule, specifically convictions of a "politically correct" strain. Nowhere is this clearer than in his play The Pain And The Itch, where most of the characters are smug and self-deluded, almost to the point of caricature. Nonetheless, his writing is sharp and witty, and the new production of the show at the Zephyr Theatre is outstanding.

Mr. Hadid (Joe Holt) is a guest in the home of Clay (Eric Hunicutt) and Kelly (Beverly Hynds), who are recounting the story of a weird family dinner they had recently. Clay's brother Cash (Trent Dawson) and his Russian girlfriend Kalina (Beth Triffon), along with Clay and Cash's mother, Carol (April Adams), were guests. Cash is expert at annoying his younger brother, Kelly finds Kalina's existence to be exasperating, and the well-meaning Carol manages to irritate everyone with her incessant chatter. At the same time, Clay and Kelly are worried about a painful rash their daughter Kayla has. (Kayla was played by Ava Bianchi, who was reviewed for this article, and Kiara Lisette Gamboa alternates in the role). Meanwhile Mr. Hadid listens politely, quite curious how much various things in the house cost, aware that the price of all this selfishness is about to come due.

Hunicutt implodes wonderfully as the bitter and self-pitying Clay and is well-matched with Hynds, whose Kelly is a model of domineering certitude. Dawson is bluntly hilarious as the more openly selfish Cash, and Triffon is very funny as the opinionated Kalina. Adams is painfully amusing as the oblivious Carol, and Holt is initially subdued and finally powerful as Hadid, although I hate it when playwrights leave an actor standing around onstage for a whole play just to use him at the very end.

Director Jennifer Chambers gets high-caliber work from her cast, and Joel Daavid's warm, earth-tones living room set exudes the ambiance of a couple really wanting to be seen as both tasteful and successful. Overall, Norris's writing works here, and he certainly has a flair for vicious dialogue. However, the plot machinations concerning Kayla and her itch (they haven't seen a doctor about this ailment until now?) are less than credible, and the structure of the whole play being a retelling of the entire dinner in all its detail to Hadid is just completely unbelievable. There's a good line where Cash speaks to Hadid: "You want to be more like us, but we're a bunch of assholes." This statement seems to be the thesis of the play, but other than making fun of these easy targets, I'm not quite certain what Norris was after. Regardless, this is a very strong production and the excellent cast makes it well worth seeing.

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"The Pain And The Itch" runs at the Zephyr Theatre through Dec. 1. Tickets are available online.