Bruce Norris’ skewering of American liberal values is the first play to be directed by Dominic Cooke under his tenure as artistic director at the Royal Court. And you cans easily see why he picked it it’s a biting, button-pushing play with considerable pedigree, having originated with Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf theatre company.
The Pain and The Itch concerns a well-heeled couple, Clay and his wife Kelly, who are hosting a holiday dinner for Clay’s plastic-surgeon brother Cash and his Eastern European girlfriend, as well as the brothers’ mother Carole. But there’s something clearly rotten at the heart of this family, both in an emotional and physical sense. The brothers seem to actively dislike one another and it’s clear from early on that Clay and Kelly’s marriage is a passionless sham. There’s also the matter of the avocados: something has been taking bites out of them rodents, or possible raccoons, are suspected and some worry about their young daughter Kayla, who has developed an itch in a rather private place.
All of these events are related to a mysterious Asian man, a man who has suffered some unspecified loss, though his role in the story only becomes clear near the end. First we get to watch the family’s painful interaction with one another. The brothers bate each other constantly and Kelly almost has an aneurism when Cash’s girlfriend Kalina dabs make-up on the precious daughter exposing her to “male objectification” or attempts to light up a cigarette. Throughout all this the socialist-voting Carole attempts to keep the peace, though her actions are as ineffectual as her politics.
Norris’ play is slick and compelling on some levels, but only superficially so. A lot of the jokes felt rather broadly telegraphed and the twists in the plot equally obvious. Satire should unsettle the audience, it should make you question yourself, but this was just too extreme, every character just so irredeemably vile, as to undermine whatever impact it set out to have. Even Kalina, with her Eurotrash boots and ability to interact with screechy Kayla as an actual child rather than a pet to be praised and reprimanded, breaks into a shocking rant about gypsies, just as she seems to be developing into the human heart of the piece.
There are some elements that I expect will strike a chord with British audiences, especially the uneasiness everyone displays about wealth. “We’re not rich, says Clay at one point, gesturing to his shiny, immaculately modern living room. “This is just an investment, we’re barely scarping by.” But on many other levels the play hasn’t travelled well. The acting goes some way for making up for this though. Matthew Macfayden successfully shucks off his coolly taciturn Mr Darcy-ness to play the whiny Clay. And Peter Sullivan was also excellent, as the narrow-eyed Cash, who seemingly had only two vocal settings: sarcasm and disdain. Andrea Riseborough portrayal of Kalina was a bit too close to stereotype for my liking.
There’s a fair bit to get your teeth into here, but the play as whole ultimately wears you down with its unrelenting unpleasantness. It was just too black and white in its outlook, just too harsh, too cruel, it needed a little more subtly in the writing to round things out.