The Pain and the Itch will make you wince if not scratch — your head, that is. Bruce Norris's nasty satire of the liberal bourgeoisie makes itself extremely clear: stop pointing that righteous finger at the Republicans — we suck too, in any number of hypocritical, insufferable ways. The black comedy, which is getting its Boston premiere from Company One (at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza through April 4), has both won awards and generated controversy — the latter because it involves a very young actress in its proceedings, in a role that requires no words but lots of unselfconscious crotch scratching. It is her character, you see, who suffers the mysterious genital rash that both engenders the play's title and serves as a graphic manifestation of what Hamlet might call something rotten in Denmark.
FOOL FOR LOVE Stacy Fischer and Timothy John Smith put Sam Shepard's play across like a two-pack of Red Bull.
But no matter how venom-dipped its cudgel or how questionable its deployment of third-graders with thespian dreams, The Pain and the Itch, which debuted at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2005, is skillfully crafted and scathingly funny, and it mixes a soupçon of mystery into its societal satire. The play begins as yuppie couple Kelly and Clay host a sobbing African-immigrant cab driver they have invited into their well-appointed home. Mr. Hadid appears to have suffered a loss, but Kelly and Clay too are burdened with uneasiness. The avocados ripening on the kitchen table have been gnawed by what may be a "non-human creature" prowling their crawl space. Moreover, the tensions between the couple are palpable as they engage in a tug-of-war over the newborn in a sling that seems less offspring than fashion accessory. Then there is the compelling if not-yet-spelled-out need to re-create for Mr. Hadid the recent fiasco of Thanksgiving dinner, to which we flash back, returning on occasion from the bloody event to its collateral damage.
Kelly, Clay, and little rash-ridden Kayla are joined for the feast by Clay's rival sibling, Cash, as well as by Cash's hot-bodied Russian girlfriend, Kalina, with her upbeat tales of rape and pillage in the old country, and by the brothers' kindergarten-teacher mom, Carol, a listening-impaired PBS devotee who prides herself on her veritable backbends of tolerance. Of course, none of these individuals, with the possible exceptions of Kayla and Kalina, are who they purport to be, and their various pretensions will get carved up along with the turkey and their secrets yanked out like the giblets as Thanksgiving devolves from a cold war into a screamfest so dyspeptic it would send Squanto careering back to the wigwam for Tums. Mr. Hadid's silent witness of events remains abstruse for a while, but gradually the dots — from savagely mauled guacamole makings to Kayla's inherited affliction — connect, and they do not make a pretty skein.
Still, Norris's attack on the liberal jugular is as wickedly amusing as it is strident — and as audacious in its details as in its denunciations. For example, the family's large flat-screen TV regularly if inexplicably morphs from cartoons to the bumptious porn that is emasculated Clay's dirty secret. Under M. Bevin O'Gara's crisp direction, on set designer Cristina Todesco's ace attempt to hew opulence out of the BCA basement, the performances, too, are pretty bumptious. Clay's sad-sack demeanor is written into his role, but Joe Lanza hits the right sulky, sanctimonious notes, and Aimee Doherty is all icy-sweet irritability as his high-powered wife. Dennis Trainor Jr. relaxes into Cash's edgy aggression, and Philana Mia, her accent as plump as she is sleek, marries Kalina's good heart to her cheerily un-PC views. As for Elliot Norton Award winner Nancy E. Carroll, her singsongy, unperceiving Carol could win her a stint as the simple man's Alistair Cooke.
Sam Shepard's Wild West is different from that of Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy. But it's wild, all right, and seldom more so than in the brief, intense, 1983 Fool for Love (Downstage @ New Rep through April 5), in which the wide-open spaces are reduced to a derelict motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert where two head-butting sharpshooters of the verbal persuasion play out a fiery, inbred riff on the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Eddie, a blustering shard of a stuntman, has driven 2480 miles in pursuit of May, who has holed up here since fleeing their trailer in a jealous pique. Floozy and cowboy, these two remnants of a mythic American West have a crackling, symbiotic connection that's part love and part hate. The pair, who may be half-siblings as well as lovers, also share a figment of memory or imagination: the grizzled father figure hovering just out of the frame, swilling from a flask and claiming to be married to country crooner Barbara Mandrell "in my mind."