The Oregonian calls The Pain and the Itch “enough food for thought…to fill you up and send you home with days worth of leftovers.” The Portland Mercury hinges the story’s hit-or-miss potential on the socioeconomic status of the viewer, calling it “a thrilling slap in the face to those who see themselves reflected onstage,” but “for those of us who don’t…two hours of listening to a—holes shout at each other.” But perhaps Russian immigrant Kalina (Amy Beth Frankel) says it best: “You’ve got to put these things in perceptive.”
As they prepare for a Thanksgiving feast in a high-priced house, Kalina’s would-be sister-in-law Kelly kvetches about an “abusive” upbringing of “sarcasm and neglect.” Kalina tries to point out that it could be worse; she survived gang-rape in her homeland. Much to the relief of her boyfriend Clay’s stunned relatives, her heartbreaking revelation can be dismissed on a technicality. “Perspective,” Clay corrects, proving he can enunciate better than he can empathize. And that seems to run in the family.
As the play progresses, Kalina’s gaffe proves closer to a thesis: You can’t have perspective, unless you are perceptive—and if you cram your head too far up the free-range turkey that is your own bourgeois comfort zone, then no matter how well-intentioned your politics are, you’ll never grow as a person. The same theme is demonstrated hilariously by dippy matriarch Carol (Jacklyn Maddux), who speaks an uninterrupted blue streak to the family’s Arab guest about—what else—the importance of listening.
From any side of the fence (though not all sides of the sunken-seated Winningstad) you’ll see great acting, but leave with a shuddering case of the creepy-crawlies as every character you try to root for manages to blurt out something appalling. “This play is really [playwright] Bruce Norris’s response to 911,” says Third Rail member Duffy Epstein (who plays the aforementioned surgeon, Cash). “It hints not only at this family’s culpability for evils that are perpetrated ‘in their name,’ but in a larger sense, America’s culpability in world affairs.”
To be fair, both foreign and domestic characters reveal their own ruthlessness—but only the non-Americans admit it. “You are for your family and I am for mine,” states Mr. Hadid (John San Nicolas), the aforementioned visitor that the titular family patronizes and insults through most of the play. “You want your children to have every possible advantage over my children. And I am the same.” Hadid’s plainspoken claim is emphatically denied! No no no! Perish that barbaric thought! And yet, as the story unfolds, we learn that these twisted yuppies have already sacrificed two lives—one feline, and one human—just to preserve their tenuous peace-of-mind. (If pushed farther, who knows what they would do?) Their initial lack of perspective having enabled their brutality, they try in vain to dull their perception of the lingering “pain and itch,” with a heavy dose of Thanksgiving tryptophan.