'The Pain and the Itch' Satirizes Hypocrisy of White Liberals

Boston Center for the Arts’ newest productions asks difficult questions

A monster has been gnawing at the avocados, explains the white suburban couple, Clay and Kelly, to Mr. Hadid, the man with an African accent sitting in their living room. Like their spotless carpet and the shiny flat-screen TV, the couple possess a pristine appearance in “The Pain and the Itch,” which runs until April 4th at the Boston Center for the Arts. But as Clay and Kelly (Joe Lanza and Aimee Doherty) tell their guest (Cedric Lilly) the story of a strange Thanksgiving that begins and ends with the mysterious bites in their avocados, it becomes apparent that there is not just one monster and not just one painful itch in their outwardly perfect lives.

While the play’s overarching message about the hypocrisy of white Northeastern liberals becomes overbearing at times, it is not easy either to write or perform a play about intolerance in post-September 11th American culture without becoming too preachy. “The Pain and the Itch” comes close to crossing the line but manages to avoid doing so due to the company’s excellent performance and M. Bevin O’Gara’s subtle direction.

“The Pain and the Itch” shows how one family’s secrets can affect the life of a complete stranger. Clay and Kelly invite Mr. Hadid into their home in order to explain, as revealed at the end of the first act, how they have indirectly killed Hadid’s wife.

They tell him a story of a family Thanksgiving rife with tension. Clay is hiding his daughter’s mysterious rash from his wife and fighting about the values of his lifestyle with his brother, Cash (Dennis Trainor Jr.). Cash is arguing with his young girlfriend and trying to hide a darker secret from his brother. As the night continues, arguments escalate, a mistaken call to the police is made, Mrs. Hadid dies, and the life of everyone on stage is completely altered.

The energy on the stage never falters, from the opening conversation between Clay, Kelly, and their out-of-place guest through the many strange confrontations that occur over the course of their story. There is no weak link in the company; the silent and troubled seven-year-old daughter (Helen Steinman) has a stage presence as forceful as that of Clay’s officious mother (Nancy E. Carroll).

The standout performance, however, is given by Philana Mia as Kalina, the young Eastern European girlfriend of Clay’s obnoxious brother, Cash. Her warm presence onstage allows her to alternate effortlessly between her character’s comedic and serious moments.

Kalina is tender and loving, if at times offensive (she makes one particularly awkward comment about exterminating the gypsies, like they did with the Jews). In spite of these moments of bigotry, Mia makes Kalina’s lines the most heartfelt ones in the play.

The set, designed by Cristina Todesco, is a beautiful backdrop to the cast’s exceptional performance. Although in the small theatre the audience is already seated close to the action, the detail of the set draws them in as if they were in fact sitting in Clay and Kelly’s living room. Because of the set’s intricacy, the few inconsistencies—such as the fact that the cast drinks water when they are supposedly drinking wine—feel oddly conspicuous.

Such inconsistencies are quickly forgotten, however, in the midst of O’Gara’s complex and constantly changing stage pictures. Also thanks to O’Gara’s direction, the transitions between present and past throughout the play are clear and smoothly executed. In one moment, Clay and Kelly are talking to Mr. Hadid about the price of the dinner table, while in the next the audience is transported into the middle of their terrible Thanksgiving dinner.

Despite the clarity of these temporal shifts, there are several key plot questions that go unanswered through most of the play, but this ambiguity shapes its tempo. Who or what is eating the avocados? What is the mysterious rash afflicting Kayla? Why did Clay and Kelly invite this man into their home, and why are they telling him the story of their dysfunctional family? These questions drive the action of the play, while the fast pace and constant banter prevent the audience from getting too impatient to learn the answers.

More importantly, the play raises a series of questions about white upper-class liberal culture that are never resolved, saving “The Pain and the Itch” from becoming overly pedantic.

How long can we keep children safe from the many dangers of the world inside and outside the home? What are the lasting effects of our biases and misjudgments? The audience may find out what has been eating Clay and Kelly’s avocados, but these larger, darker questions have no easy answer.

—Staff writer Rachel A. Burns can be reached at rburns@fas.harvard.edu.