Monday, March 30, 2009

Itchy and Scratchy

The talented cast of The Pain and the Itch.

God, I hate white people! Don't you? I mean they're such hypocritical, neurotic snobs, impotent yet promiscuous (not to mention porn-addicted, the slobs), it's really too bad they came up with all that science and culture, otherwise we would all be so much better off without them! And if you look beyond their so-called "accomplishments," really what is there to them? I mean they can't even dance!

Although I suppose there is one other mitigating factor in their favor:

Their guilt.

And oh, white guilt. There's nothing like it. You might think the genocide in Rwanda would give Africans some moral pause - or the rape of Nanking might make the Japanese feel a bit guilty, or the Chinese might be embarrassed about the Cultural Revolution. But are there any plays about black, brown, or yellow guilt? Obviously not. But white guilt - now you're talking! It's a whole genre, the cultural spring that never runs dry, the pseudo-moral courtesan that makes hungry where s/he most satisfies. White guilt! Just thinking about it makes me dizzy!

Hence my admiration for playwright Bruce Norris, whose play The Pain and the Itch (now at Company One through April 4) may give him a claim to the title of most sophisticated white-guilt whore on the planet. For you see, guilt-addicted as we are, us white folks are jaded; it takes a lot to get our conscience - um - up, if you know what I'm saying. The old "surprise visit" may in fact be the only way to the golden temple these days - that is, the long, distracting tease followed by the nasty pounce. It's a demanding strategy, but if said tease can bounce between primary and secondary forms of guilt - say, between our original racism as well as our hypocrisy over believing we can ever shed that racism - then you're well on your way to the white-guilt trifecta, which is to lead us into the very behaviors we originally felt guilty about! Then wham, bam, thank you, Aunt Jemima - you pull that ole white supremacist rabbit out of its, um, hat of color, and we all but dissolve into a shuddering jelly of sheer culpability! Not only were we guilty before, but we are doubly, triply guilty now!

And Bruce Norris just about pulls this trifecta off, despite an obvious contradiction in his central gambit - because when you think about it, there's something a little odd about a play that decries racial stereotyping while indulging utterly in white stereotypes. But at least the playwright is a skilled juggler of clichés, and knows how to tie them up in a neat (and somewhat new) conceptual bow. The meat of his play occurs at Thanksgiving, that whitest of holidays, amidst a privileged family of liberals all too happy to turn the carving knife on each other (of course). Those who have seen any Alan Ball cable show - or really any cable show - will be unsurprised to discover that the resident powermom is emasculating (and her baby just an accessory); the earnest house husband is a whiner and closet porn hound; grandma's a font of addled PBS platitudes, and on the edge of Alzheimer's; older brother is an alpha-male asshole - a plastic surgeon, even - with a politically-incorrect sexpot girlfriend, etc., etc., etc. Was there a single original idea or character in that list? No. But if the tropes are familiar, Norris nevertheless cross-cuts between them with assured technique, and the Company One cast gives them more than enough heat to make these left-overs taste fresh; as a result, the whole bitterly ironic soufflé rises nicely throughout most of the first act.

But in the second act, when Norris's conceptual ambitions come more into play, he falters, and his technique seems to desert him. This is probably because his somewhat intriguing-concept - that Thanksgiving dinner is actually being "re-told" to a black cab driver, Mr. Hadid, who's mysteriously on the scene - requires building up a central pyramid of circumstance and conflict that will cascade into an unforeseen disaster. Only the playwright is too interested in his many satiric side-shows (sibling rivalry, liberal Bush-bashing) to actually construct this structural pillar at all credibly. Thus it doesn't feel particularly compelling; instead it becomes an improbable sideshow of its own, and the dismay and abashed horror that I guess we're supposed to feel at the play's conclusion don't really take.

Company One's promo for The Pain and the Itch.

And everything is complicated by the presence of a very young actress playing the part of the central couple's eldest child, Kayla, who is suffering from the genital rash that gives the play its winsome title. Okay, you can immediately sense the needling edge of this meta-theatrical ploy: it's easy to be horrified and protective of this youngster in exactly the same way - Norris seems to want to say - that his privileged characters are about their child. After all, here we are, worrying about whether it's "appropriate" or not for an eight-year-old to deployed in this manner, when of course we should be worrying about Darfur instead! (See what I mean about white people? Ugh!) I was willing at first to go along with Norris for this particular ride - but began to blanche a bit as the play rolled on. At first the charming young thing playing the role at my performance was always off-stage when things got "inappropriate" - but then, in the second act, Norris and Company One toyed with that line. And I just began to wonder whether it was all that "white" of me to be concerned over an eight-year-old running around with a hypodermic, or gamboling near a widescreen TV that was playing a porn movie (albeit one obviously contrived for the production, with nobody's "uglies" actually showing). No, I'm not about to call the authorities or point a finger at anyone, but I am wondering what these moments were intended to prove thematically.

To be fair, you could argue Norris is merely cramming together a host of privileged paranoias (of sexual abuse, foreigners, terrorists) into one rickety plot, and maybe that's a valid approach. But note that adjective "rickety." By the time Norris gets to his dénouement, it's all too easy to argue that a) his characters aren't actually guilty of the social crime he's pinned on them, and b) the personal crimes he then must reveal (think Ibsen!) are so outré as to render his characters monstrous, and safely beyond the pale, as it were. And I found Norris's bait-and-switch choice of victim intriguing - he uses paranoia about terrorism and pedophilia not to conjure complicated feelings for Arabs, or, well, pedophiles, but for that old stand-by, the immigrant African. Which sounds to me an awful lot like (dare I say it?) PBS.

Believe it or not, this is actually the basement of the BCA.

As you can probably tell, I'm of several minds about this play - I actually agree with the playwright's seeming thesis, i.e. that privileged whites are horrifying in their self-absorbed "tolerance" and "cultural awareness," which only hide unconscious racist and classist assumptions. But I'm dismayed by his methods.

One thing I couldn't argue with, however, is the Company One production, under the smoothly confident direction of M. Bevin O'Gara, and on a set by Cristina Todesco that works a small, elegant miracle in the BCA Plaza space (above). Indeed, I'm pretty sure this large ensemble will prove one of the best of the year (its only competition so far has been from the actors of the Apollinaire Theatre's equally-edgy Dark Play). Local star Nancy Carroll is nearly perfect (of course) as the fog-bound matriarch, who's so tolerant she even finds her son's cache of porn adorable, but she's almost bested by two of her co-stars. Aimee Doherty, who did strong work in the New Rep's Cabaret just last month, here absolutely nails her gleaming, glaring powermom (who even has a designer outfit for nursing her baby). But the real find of the production is Philana Mia, who gives the seemingly airheaded, politically-incorrect girlfriend a convincingly frightening backstory and an admirable spine. The men are somewhat overshadowed by this talented sorority, but Dennis Trainor, Jr., brings a wearily cynical edge to his jaded lothario, Cedric Lilly negotiates the mystery of Mr. Hadid with understated skill, and Joe Lanza projects about the right amount of earnestness and wimpiness (although he hasn't quite figured out how to manage the slow, hysterical build required). And Rebecca Skye Hamberg, who played Kayla on the night I attended, was absolutely adorable. Just nobody tell her what this play is about.

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