The Pain and the Itch, Playwrights Horizons, NY

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London has Kevin Spacey to jump-start its autumn theatre season; New York has The Pain and the Itch. And, with all proper respect to Spacey, I’ll take Pain any day. Bruce Norris’s relentless send-up of comfortable liberalism has acquired scads of naysayers since opening at Playwrights Horizons, but the champions have started drowning out the detractors. The thumbs- down crowd say Norris’s characters are tiresome: symbols, more than real people. Others argue that the dramatist has an acute ear for the rage beneath leftwing sympathies.

The debate could in fact be a topic for discussion in the play’s household. Clay and Kelly occupy a smartly designed flat in an unnamed city, and their politics – proudly progressive – are of a piece with their up-to-the-minute cultural tastes. The couple’s targets, apart from each other, include Clay’s martini-swilling brother, Cash, Cash’s gauche Russian girlfriend, Kalina, and the brothers’ ingratiating yet annoying mother, Carol.

The story unfolds in two timeframes: a holiday dinner, in which a genital problem of Clay and Kelly’s daughter Kayla is revealed, and a subsequent gathering, in which the family explains condescendingly to a taxi driver, Mr Hadid, the reason for the event that has ruined his life.

The play’s satire is unsparing. For example, Kelly, a lawyer played with gusto by Mia Barron, lashes out against George W. Bush with a ferocity exceptional even in the New York theatre. If Norris’s whirling pace tends to enervate our pleasures before the final curtain, the pitilessness is essential to exposing the hypocrisy on display.

One wouldn’t want to watch two hours like this every night, but there is something wonderfully tonic about the way The Pain and the Itch, bracingly directed by Anna D. Shapiro, holds a mirror up to its audience’s politics. Its detractors might keep in mind a remark of Jonathan Swift’s: satire is a glass in which one sees everyone but oneself.

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