‘Pain and the Itch’ a crisp, biting satire 

The “pain” in the title of Bruce Norris’ 2004 “The Pain and the Itch” refers to the psychic pain experienced by every character in the dark and biting social satire that’s on the boards at the tiny Custom Made Theatre Company.

That would include all the members of this self-consciously progressive white family, gathered for an unfortunate Thanksgiving dinner: insecure house-husband Clay (comically gifted Justin Gillman) and his tightly wound wife, Kelly (Karen Offereins, with just the right degree of passive-aggressive hostility); the couple’s silent little girl, Kayla (an adorable Gabriella Jarvie); Clay’s arrogant doctor brother, Cash (a smirky Peter Townley, and yes, the endlessly feuding brothers are named Cassius and Clay); and the brothers’ mother, Carol (Jean Forsman, sometimes over the top, other times exactly right as an annoyingly perky chatterbox).

It also includes two outsiders: Cash’s flamboyantly sexy, Eastern European-immigrant girlfriend, Kalina (a nicely layered portrayal by Eden Neuendorf), and a quietly watchful man (a calm and mesmerizing Dorian Lockett) whose presence is increasingly mystifying: Is he a marriage counselor? Lawyer? Judge of some sort? Is he a figment of the family’s collective imagination?

The itch is both physical and in a way psychic, too.

In addition to the mysterious visitor, Norris weaves many other tantalizing puzzles and riddles into the nonlinear plot.

The family’s ostensible, immediate problem: Is there an animal — a raccoon, a weasel — hiding in the house? Avocados with bites taken out of them have been found, and Clay, desperate to trap the elusive critter, runs around wielding blunt instruments.

Other concerns: Is the (unseen) immigrant maid stealing things

? What is the source of little Kayla’s vaginal infection?

Why do the two brothers hate each other so much, and why is Clay and Kelly’s marriage such a mess?

In addition to exposing ugly family dysfunction, Norris, whose “Clybourne Park” (seen locally at American Conservatory Theater) won a Pulitzer Prize, examines some of the same social issues in “The Pain,” an earlier play — particularly the relationship between the haves (specifically, smugly liberal, affluent and hypocritical middle classes) and the have-nots (in this case, immigrants, and the haves’ assumptions about them).

And as in “Clybourne Park,” that examination, humorous as it is, can get downright cringe-inducing.

The play takes just the right amount of theatrical time to reveal the intricate links among all its mysteries, and under Dale Albright’s direction, and with a strong cast, the action is crisp and focused throughout.


The Pain and the Itch

Presented by Custom Made Theatre Company

Where: Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 9

Tickets: $15 to $35

Contact: (415) 798-2682, www.custommade.org

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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