Finally! A Great, New Voice: Norris’ Pain and the Itch

At the start of every new season, I say a silent prayer. It goes like this:

“Please God, let the season be different from all other seasons. Please don’t let it be dominated by any more revivals, British actors and Eve Ensler. Please get them to bring the price of tickets down and make all welcome at the theater. Please God, let one new, thrilling voice of an unknown playwright be heard throughout the land. Thanks a lot. That’s all for now.”

The exceptionally good news is that at the very start of the new season, that thrilling new voice has been heard. It belongs to Bruce Norris, whose unexpected and bold social-political satire, The Pain and the Itch, is the best new play I’ve seen for many a season.

Mr. Norris is an actor-dramatist whose work is best known in Chicago. Like so much that’s good and challenging in theater, The Pain and the Itch premiered at Steppenwolf, where Anna D. Shapiro, its fine director, first staged it. The outcome of the perfectly cast production at Playwrights Horizons is the introduction to New York of a dramatist of uncommon skill and fearlessness.

Mr. Norris’ take on the hypocrisies of the conscience-stricken, wealthy bourgeoisie made me laugh a lot. There are heady, farcical peaks to his comedy that approach the manic genius of Preston Sturges movies. In the wonderfully alive performance of newcomer Aya Cash as a coarse and sweet Russian bimbo who can’t quite master English, the evening even has its living spirit of Carole Lombard. In my book, no praise comes higher. Ms. Cash is a gem.

But the fearlessness of Mr. Norris is more unusual than his natural comic flair. He is the first dramatist of our time to take uncompromising aim at phony liberals. I know nothing about his personal politics, and care less whether he is of the left or right. What political plays we’ve had of late gloat over the “topical,” like Eve Ensler’s overacted, smug psychodrama about torture and accountability, The Treatment, at Culture Project. Or they habitually preach to the anti-Bush choir. Mr. Norris changes lanes. He firstly reverses the rules and satirizes the choir.

In other welcome words, he risks offense. And, judging by the appalled response of some of my queasy colleagues in the reviewing game, he gives it. But political satire that’s healthy doesn’t have clean hands. To the contrary, at its best it is meant to give offense. It cannot by nature be mild. It is unable to disturb mildly, flatter or “please.” Mr. Norris’ social comedy pleases us well enough. His hard inner message is about nothing less than the sorry state of a fucked-up America.

The first thing we see when the curtain goes up on The Pain and the Itch is an Arab figure, known simply as Mr. Hadid, sobbing quietly at the loss of his wife as a young married couple stare at him uncomfortably.

“I am sorry,” Mr. Hadid apologizes.

“No,” says Clay rapidly. He’s holding a baby.

“Don’t,” says Kelly.

“It’s okay,” adds Clay.

“It is so okay,” says his wife.

“More than okay. You should feel absolutely …. ”

Both of them are so overbearingly understanding to the foreigner in their midst that they even nauseate each other. Why the dignified Mr. Hadid is grieving in their expensive, ultra-modern home will be resolved for us in the final scene. The obviously concerned Clay, the insecure househusband, and his wife Kelly, the overachieving lawyer (excellently played by Christopher Evan Welch and Mia Barron), are card-carrying anti-Bush liberals who also loathe each other.

It is Thanksgiving—a handy, symbolic time of the year for playwrights. But this playwright surprises us. Some animal—possibly a squirrel or weird, shuffling thing in the attic—seems to have invaded the house to take bites out of avocados. Apart from anything, the health of the couple’s children is thereby threatened by neurotoxins.

The avocado fiend in the family is a mystery to be solved. But the paranoid Clay sees too much in his precious children at the best of times. “ … I hate to use the cliché,” he announces, sanctimoniously struggling to find the right words. “It sounds like such a cliché, but it’s a gift, right. To be able to, with your kids, to recapture some of … our … innocence. Get some of that back. Reconnect with the innocence. Because if you don’t, then, you know? Then it … it … it’s lost. It collapses like, like, like …. ”

“Like a soufflé,” suggests Mr. Hadid.

“Oh, do you know the word soufflé?” Clay’s mother asks the foreigner.

Meanwhile, Clay’s loathed brother, Cash, has come to Thanksgiving lunch with his Russian girl. Cash is a politically indifferent plastic surgeon, a laid-back, nasty piece of work (brilliantly underplayed by Reg Rogers). The Russian girlfriend, Kalina, first bursts on the scene playfully chasing a child in a party frock through the sitting room. “I am going to get you!” she cries. “You not fast enough! Ha! I will capture you and torture you!”

Kalina is tactlessly, clangingly honest. She bought her new boots, she tells us proudly, during a trip to Ground Zero. Yet, along with Mr. Hadid, she’s the only adult in the play to have any perspective on life. In a witty play on words, she pronounces “perspective” perceptive. “But you know, Kelly, you should put in perceptive these things …. ”

Jayne Houdyshell, who stole the show as the warm and wise Mum in Lisa Kron’s Well, plays a warm and dim Mum here. Ms. Houdyshell, a master of relaxed comic timing, has created a woman of bland stupidity practically out of thin air. Carol has been raised on virtuous PBS travelogues, Charlie Rose and British acting—“ … the English actors are just better. Don’t you think? Especially in historical films …. ” Clichés drop from her mouth like bats off a ceiling. Ms. Houdyshell’s vapid Carol can blithely announce the curious fact that Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan are Alzheimer victims. “Isn’t that a coincidence?” she announces blankly. “Both actors. Both Republicans.”

But Mr. Norris’ real target is that great sentimental sham, the idealized all-American family. His characters seem to be living on different planets from each other. There’s no sense of a loving family about them—only of a self-interested, superficial life they’ll do anything to protect. You might easily get the impression they’re just one shaky step away from insanity.

The domestic scenes begin as comedy and end as black farce, like when bewildered Mum keeps coming up with graphic porn on the giant flat screen instead of a children’s video. But The Pain and the Itch also conveys a tragic reality about a paranoid, post-9/11 America gone horribly wrong.

It’s shocking to learn that the pretty young child in the play, named Kayla, suffers from a mysterious infection, possibly sexual. The playwright’s metaphor for a sick America is apparent—perhaps too blatantly so. I found it very disturbing. At center, the play isn’t about the comedy of dysfunctional families or smirking, righteous liberals versus smirking, righteous Republicans. All of that’s comparatively easy meat for Mr. Norris. But the play cuts much deeper into the near-forbidden territory of unlovable, blind Americans.

Everyone, except for the Russian babe, Kalina, patronizes the foreigner in their midst, Mr. Hadid. In a quiet, private moment with him, the cynical Cash relates a true story about the absolute importance in life of superficial appearances. Call it the Parable of the Plastic Surgeon.

He tells of a woman with a huge nose who comes to get it fixed by him. The problem is—she tells him—she doesn’t believe in plastic surgery. She says her belief system tells her not to agree with it. “I think people should stop being hung up on the superficial,” she says. “I have a wonderful personality. I’m a good friend. I’m funny. I’m lively.” But she doesn’t have a boyfriend and she can’t get the jobs she wants—all because of her nose.

She concludes that the world should not be that way. But that is her belief. What can he do to put her mind at rest about the whole procedure?

So he puts on a serious expression and asks her this: What do you think came first—your beliefs or your nose?

She says it doesn’t matter. Her beliefs are who she really is.

And he says yes, but the problem is that he can’t see her beliefs.

I hope you get to see The Pain and the Itch. But whether you find it as funny, and as original, as I did depends entirely on your perceptive.

Finally! A Great, New Voice:  Norris’ Pain and the Itch