In “The Pain and the Itch,” now at Boston Court, playwright Bruce Norris takes a baleful look at an upscale white family afflicted with spiritual and ethical scabies. Every time you think these cringe-inducing characters can’t descend any lower, they discover a new mucky bottom.
All credit, then, to this co-production between the Theatre @ Boston Court and Furious Theatre Company, directed by Damaso Rodriguez, for not slipping into monstrous caricature. Even when we’re laughing derisively, we can’t help recognizing patterns in hypocrisy, denial, narcissism and greed.
It’s Thanksgiving, and meek and mild Clay (Brad Price) has gathered his nearest and dearest. In attendance are his ticked-off wife, Kelly (Vonessa Martin ), carting their baby in her stylish papoose, and squealing toddler daughter Kayla (Ava Feldman at the reviewed performance), whose alarming genital rash has given rise to the play’s title.
Clay’s brash plastic surgeon brother, Cash (Scott Lowell), has brought along his vibrantly tacky Eastern European girlfriend (Katie Marie Davies). And Clay and Cash’s mom (Jennifer Rhodes) is also visiting, which allows us to speculate on the origins of the sons’ dysfunctional temperaments.
On the theatrical sidelines, Mr. Hadid (Kevin Vavasseur) watches a reenactment of what occurred on that fateful November day, when a family’s festering grievances wound up poisoning his own life.
Bruising and biting, “The Pain and the Itch” belabors its shocking secrets. Rodriguez should have picked up the pace in the last half hour, though hats off to his cast for making the increasingly farcical momentum plausibly malicious.
-- Charles McNulty
“The Pain and the Itch,” Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 23. $27 to $32. (626) 683-6883. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
The power of a couple’s stories
The married tramps of Eugene Ionesco’s “The Chairs” could be Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, a few decades after “Modern Times”: hard-luck cases still trying to eke it out on moxie. In City Garage’s dynamic but uninvolving production, the shabby General Factotum (Bo Roberts) entertains his wife, Semiramis (Cynthia Mance), with tales of the past, while she reminds him of missed opportunities.
But all is about to change. After years of obscurity, the general will proclaim his worldview to an invited audience, his speech to be delivered by an acclaimed orator (Garth Whitten).
Charles Duncombe’s elegantly dilapidated set features a series of doors and windows standing in empty space -- portals to nowhere. This 1952 absurdist classic doesn’t exactly skimp on metaphor and can feel like an extended acting exercise: Performers have to relate to a string of invisible party guests and convey the sense of drowning in a crowd.
Director Frederique Michel deftly choreographs the players’ manic party preparations, but the sense of mortality that pervades “The Chairs” never quite snowballs into the desperate euphoria it should. Mance and Roberts, possibly too vigorous to play a couple sliding into senescence, adroitly sketch a relationship kept alive through storytelling.
When they yield the floor to the orator, however, the rest is silence.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
“The Chairs,” City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 13. $15 to $25. (310) 319-9939. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
A painful chapter in race relations
On July 17, 1944, two massive explosions ripped through the Port Chicago Navy Munitions base near San Francisco. Most of the 320 men killed were African American sailors loading weapons, as the Navy did not permit them to serve in combat. When a group of black seamen refused to go back to work under similarly volatile conditions, they were charged with mutiny.
This little-remembered but extraordinary chapter in American race relations is the subject of Paul Leaf’s absorbing courtroom drama, “Mutiny at Port Chicago,” now at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica.
The walls of Christina Silvoso’s stark set are covered with phrases from enlistment oaths and the primary documents of American liberty. These estimable words surround the linguistic skirmish between Seaman Little (J. Teddy Garces), de facto leader of the striking men, and the Navy’s prosecutor (Cris D’Annunzio).
What’s unspoken, of course, is the diminished value the Navy put on black lives.
Leaf captures courtroom fencing with economical wit. But the play never quite gets inside its characters and retains the distanced feel of a history lesson. As Little, however, Garces gives a powerfully understated performance, while Maury Sterling’s defense counsel is a wry hero straight out of Howard Hawks.
Leaf might consider revising “Mutiny” to give his juicy characters the dramatic space they deserve.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
“Mutiny at Port Chicago,” Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 15. $15 to $20. (310) 397-3244. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
When pretty boy passes his prime
The opening image of “Big Bro/Lil Bro,” which concludes its Company of Angels run on Sunday, is a man in a wheelchair, gazing down a hall as though into infinity. Its synoptic return at the end of Jonathan Ceniceroz’s intriguing comic drama has rather different, entirely ironic implications.
We quickly learn that Gil (Art McDermott) is the aging lover of Carlos (Vince Tula), who now rejects their long-term arrangement -- “I love you, mijo, but I’m not in love with you.” It’s clear to both Gil and us that, as 40 approaches, this former pretty boy from Montebello is blindly leaping into his own identity crisis.
That arrives with unapologetically narcissistic Jeremy (understudy David Padilla, in for Xavi Moreno), a Generation Next-er of decidedly brazen ambitions. Their relationship grows shaky against economic and psychosexual realities, leading to sinister reversals of motive.
Ceniceroz has a sharp ear for the way gay men talk to each other, especially pert when pitting pros and cons of the pre-AIDS era against current attitudes. His script could further explore the subtle variants between white and Latino perspectives, and certain plot twists are more predictable than need be. Director Josh Chambers achieves striking effects, notably in the fluid spatial positioning of the triangle and the sudden scene shifts to designer Jeff Teeter’s booming sound track.
Similarly, the cast keeps us off-balance and attentive, although audibility and expression occasionally suffer for intimacy. An obvious purple theater circuit natural, “Big Bro/Lil Bro” might be most rewarding as a noir-tinged indie film.
-- David C. Nichols
“Big Bro/Lil Bro,” Company of Angels Theatre at the Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., L.A. 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $20. (323) 883-1717. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.