The Pain and the Itch

Steppenwolf Theatre

Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out. –Dawn Powell

bruce Norris’s scathing, brutally funny tale of upper-middle-class urbanites awash in liberal guilt is a refreshing antidote to the Kumbaya School of Playwriting, in which earnest, well-meaning characters with furrowed brows attack social issues. The Pain and the Itch, now receiving its world premiere at Steppenwolf, provides a pitiless portrait of a certain stratum of society that the typical liberal theatergoer might recognize. But however crystalline Norris’s portrait, I had the nagging sense that he’d left the insides of his characters out. In their self-centered unpleasantness and fixations on nothing, they feel at times like extended-play versions of Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George. And Norris seems to have adopted the credo of Seinfeld creator Larry David: no lessons, no hugging.

Which isn’t to say that this is sitcom writing. Norris began acting and directing in Chicago in the 80s, and he’s been writing plays since 1991. He’s far too cerebral to be content with the usual setups and punch lines. Still, a few familiar tropes appear. There’s the classic setting–a holiday dinner gone badly awry. Then there are the familiar characters, family members who drive one another a little nuts. Clay (as in “feet of”) is a henpecked, whiny, ineffectual househusband to Kelly, a domineering lawyer. Clay’s brother is a plastic surgeon, Cash (as in “cold hard”), who prides himself on cutting through the bullshit with witty rejoinders. Clay and Cash’s distracted mother, Carol, can never remember jokes. The person with the funny accent is Cash’s young eastern European wife, Kalina. There’s also some semiabsurdist business about someone or something gnawing on the avocados in the kitchen.

Clay and Kelly’s young daughter, Kayla, has a genital rash that provides both the play’s title and the basis for the action. The story is told in flashbacks as Clay and Kelly insist on giving a distraught recent African immigrant, Mr. Hadid, “an accurate picture of who we are.” Why he has come to visit them isn’t immediately apparent, but the couple proceed to paint an unintentional picture of passive-aggressive hypocrites obsessed with money and status but unwilling to acknowledge the price of anything in their lives, whether it’s the actual price tag or the cost of their lifestyle to those less fortunate. The characters who come closest to revealing the truth are the outsiders, Hadid and Kalina. Kalina occasionally spews racially offensive remarks–which makes everyone else in the family uncomfortable; yet Kelly’s diatribe against red-state voters is considered righteous indignation. When Clay sputters on about how important family is, Hadid quietly tells him, “You are for your children. I am for my children.” And by the end it’s clear that Clay and Kelly’s bumbling, paranoiac attempts to protect their world have damn near destroyed Hadid’s.

Oddly, Norris’s screwball tragicomedy feels closer in spirit to Henrik Ibsen than Dollhouse, Rebecca Gilman’s superficial update of the Norwegian master now playing at the Goodman. Though all three writers focus on the soul-deadening materialism and conformity of their societies, Norris, like Ibsen, captures more of what’s at its heart. And of course the idea of social disease that runs throughout The Pain and the Itch echoes Ibsen’s Ghosts. Norris is also just a hell of a lot funnier than Gilman, and he doesn’t rely on the lazy shorthand of naming products for his satire. Instead he focuses with laserlike intensity on the hypocrisy of middle-class people when it comes to listening. Though Kelly urges her daughter to “use your words,” no one hears the little girl except when she’s squealing with delight while roughhousing with Kalina, causing Clay and Kelly to quickly extinguish this “violent” play. Carol rambles on about a British actor interviewed on PBS who maintains that listening is “what makes a great actor”–then she asks Hadid a question he’s already answered three times.

This is Norris’s third collaboration with Anna D. Shapiro, and he’s fortunate to have such a skilled and sensitive director to distract us from the somewhat implausible, convoluted plot. Moment by moment the work here is clean, well paced, and thoroughly engaging. There’s some bravura acting, particularly from Tracy Letts as the scalpel-tongued Cash and Kate Arrington as his pretty but tormented cosmetologist wife, who can’t quite ignore or escape the horrors of her childhood. Zak Orth’s performance as whiny man-boy Clay gets wearing after a while, and Mariann Mayberry never quite cracks Kelly’s chilly, careful exterior to reveal why she committed the rash act that caused her daughter’s condition. Dan Ostling’s set includes some clever visual jokes: ethnic masks peer out from beneath the staircase, symbolic of the family’s fear of the unknown.

More technically assured than Norris’s last collaboration with Shapiro, Purple Heart, this play is in some ways less successful emotionally. At least from time to time Norris managed to suggest he had some sympathy for the anguished Vietnam widow at that play’s center. But The Pain and the Itch at its best merely induces fascination with this unlikable family, a well-drawn gallery of grotesques that recalls Flannery O’Connor but lacks the heft of her spiritual beliefs to balance the characters’ well-meaning cluelessness. By the second act, Norris’s dissection of the family begins to feel rote, and his pat wrap-up of revelations at the end suggests a writer who’s tired of his creations. Norris has an incredible ear for dialogue and a real gift for gutting people onstage. Now he needs to do the hard work and move beyond easy nihilism, because what’s inside people is usually a bit more complex and interesting than the dry rot of the ego.

When: Through 8/28: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM (Sun 3 PM only 8/14-8/28; also 2 PM Wed 8/10-8/24)

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, downstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $42-$60

Info: 312-335-1650

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.