By Margaret Gray
1:19 PM PDT, October 29, 2013
This review has been updated as noted below.
Bruce Norris, whose “Clybourne Park” won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and the 2012 Tony Award for best play, has a merciless ear for the hypocrisies we all helplessly reveal with every remark. In his scabrous comedy “The Pain and the Itch” (2004), in a lively revival at Zephyr Theater, his portrait of a well-off, smugly liberal family on Thanksgiving grows ever darker as it develops.
Director Jennifer Chambers has relocated the action, originally set in a nameless city, to Pacific Palisades.
L.A. audiences will feel at home in set designer Joel Daavid’s vision of the tasteful, soulless living room of Clay (Eric Hunicutt) and Kelly (Beverly Hynds), a couple with a young daughter, Kayla (Kiara Lisette Gamboa alternating with Ava Bianchi), a newborn son and deep resentments. Their variously ill-behaved guests include Clay’s dithering socialist mother, Carol (April Adams); his crass brother, Cash (Trent Dawson); and Cash’s younger, Russian-born girlfriend, Kalina (Beth Triffon).
Also present is the mysterious, skullcap-wearing Mr. Hadid (Joe Holt), first seen sobbing on the couch as Clay and Kelly awkwardly console him. Although he remains onstage throughout, it’s not clear from moment to moment if he’s part of the action or an observer — and why he's there at all.
Meanwhile, Clay, a stay-at-home dad, is ominously maneuvering to conceal little Kayla’s virulent case of diaper rash (see the play’s title) from his bossy, emasculating wife.
In the implausible revelations of its second act, as well as in its focus on one family as a means of accusing an entire sector of society, “The Pain and the Itch” hearkens back to the problem plays of Ibsen and Shaw.
Norris presents his characters’ whiny self-involvement as not only ridiculous — as when Kelly’s claim to have been abused by “neglect alternating with sarcasm” is contrasted with Kalina’s childhood rape — but as a malignant force with lethal consequences for the less privileged.
Initially provocative, the tart humor grows rancid, the plotting feels heavy-handed and the characters are eviscerated so balefully that you may, defiantly, start to sympathize with them. If you do remember them at your own Thanksgiving table, you will also be glad you didn’t invite Bruce Norris.
“The Pain and the Itch,” Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 1. $25. (323) 960-5774 or www.plays411.com/pain. Running time: 2 hours.
[For the record: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said "The Pain and Itch" plays on Thursdays. The schedule is Friday-Sunday]
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