If you were wondering what the future of sitcom might be after Fox buys up PBS, then you’re among the minimal audience likely to find some interest in The Pain and the Itch, at Playwrights Horizons. A sort of my-liberalism-is -smarter-than-your- liberalism joke for reactionaries, actor Bruce Norris’s play centers on an affluent couple who spout the unthinking jargon of political correctness in the oblivious manner of Jules Feiffer’s 1950s cartoon characters in this paper. They occasionally sound like the people in post-Feiffer New Yorker cartoons, too, especially those by William Hamilton (who, like Feiffer, has occasionally struggled to give his two-dimensional figures a three-dimensional life in the theater) and Ed Koren. Norris’s targets, alas, are neither as giddily glamorous as Hamilton’s nor as amusingly furry and prickly as Koren’s, while the curare-tipped satirical barbs of Feiffer, who could decimate an entire political platform in eight panels, are not part of today’s by-the-numbers playwriting toolkit.
Of course, Norris provides his couple, a high-power corporate exec (Mia Barron) and her self-important house-husband (Christopher Evan Welch), with a pair of right-wing cynics for contrast, illusion-deflating, and general argument-starting. That would be hubby’s brother, an arrogant plastic surgeon (Reg Rogers), and his near-child spouse (Aya Cash), a refugee from somewhere in post-Communist Eastern Europe, whose incessant chatter brims with ancient bigotries, Slavic-accented malapropisms, and a desperate craving for all the corporate consumer goodies her in-laws shudder at. For comic relief from the comedy, Norris throws in the two men’s mother (Jayne Houdyshell) a dotty retired first-grade teacher whose short-term memory loss is equaled only by her dual fixation on PBS platitudes and celebrity gossip. A largely silent Third World immigrant (Peter Jay Fernandez), whose unexplained presence ultimately supplies the elaborate and highly improbable excuse for the whole interminable exercise, provides a sort of token-authenticity rebuke to the proceedings, as if we wouldn’t get the joke without outside help. As a final revelation, we learn that the pileup of events hinges on a highly unlikely clandestine affair between two people who can barely stand to be in the same room for five minutes and probably aren’t sexually compatible. And for a punch line, the piece turns out to be an overdecorated take-down of Ibsen’s obscure late play, Little Eyolf, which also features a wealthy go-getter wife, a philosophizing house-husband, and an apparent infestation of little gnawing creatures that need to be gotten rid of. Trust me, Ibsen’s version is funnier—as well as being both more believable and more relevant today.
Still, Norris, who showed some skill as a performer before he took up playwriting, knows how to create comic opportunities for actors within the cardboard limits of his characters. His director, Anna D. Shapiro, has returned the compliment by giving his script the fairest shake imaginable, letting her extremely gifted cast milk every moment to the fullest but never trying to cover up the script’s flaws with extraneous actor-business. Barron, Rogers, and the ever-adorable Houdyshell are merely excellent; the evening’s twin comic triumphs come from Cash, making an enchantingly giddy, perfectly nuanced Off-Broadway debut as the flibbertigibbet refugee wife, and Welch, whose immaculately earnest, bundle-of-nerves hero could easily have stepped right off the page of a Feiffer cartoon—a goyishe Bernard Mergendeiler. The prolonged “bit” in which his older brother’s unwanted presence triggers his regression into tantrummy, spiteful childishness is so hilariously perfect that it should probably be put on tape—without the rest of the play, please—as a model for classes in comic acting.