Vivian Kells and Christopher Evan Welch  in The Pain and the Itch
(© Joan Marcus)
Vivian Kells and Christopher Evan Welch
in The Pain and the Itch
(© Joan Marcus)
Appearances, as we all know, can be deceiving. What greets the audience as they enter Playwrights Horizons' mainstage theater for Bruce Norris' The Pain and the Itch is set designer Dan Ostling's meticulous re-creation of an affluent suburban home, complete with pretentious African art, a large-screen television, and stainless steel appliances. But what audiences won't realize -- at least until the end of Anna D. Shapiro's smartly directed and brilliantly acted production -- is what's really on that stage is a giant mirror.

That's right: Norris' target is, of all things, the urban liberal left -- embodied here by Kelly (Mia Barron), an ultra-successful lawyer, and her stay-at-home husband Clay (Christopher Evan Welch). They are a seemingly loving and enlightened couple, more concerned with the world's emotional and spiritual well-being than their own financial stability. They're equally concerned -- one might even say overly-protective -- parents to their four-year-old daughter Kayla (Vivien Kells, at my performance) and her newborn baby brother. They are also not what they seem.

As the play opens, Kelly and Clay are playing host to Mr. Hadid (Peter Jay Fernandez), whose true relationship to the couple will only become clear towards the play's conclusion. Jumping back and forth between present and past, the couple revisit for the guest their recent rather disastrous Thanksgiving dinner. On hand for the so-called festivities are Clay's mother Carol (Jayne Houdyshell), a first-grade teacher outwardly committed to diversity, PBS, and the Discovery Channel; Clay's arrogant plastic-surgeon brother Cash (Reg Rogers), and his much-much-younger Russian girlfriend, Kalina (Aya Cash), who emerges in her own way as the voice of reason among the madness.

Adding to general stress of the holidays, Kelly and Clay are convinced that an animal has gotten into their house, as evidenced by the teeth marks in the avocados resting on the counter; Carol is sure the couple's maid is stealing their beloved fig-and-nut bread; and, oh yes, Kayla has some strange condition in her nether regions, which Clay has secretly asked Cash to look at -- the only reason he's invited his contentious sibling to dinner. To say that everything goes spectacular awry is to only begin to plumb the depth of the comedy -- and tragedy -- that Norris has in store.

The actor-turned-playwright proves to have a 24-karat ear for priceless, well-crafted, and authentic-sounding dialogue, whether its Cash's razor-sharp retorts or Kalina's moving account of being raped as a child. Norris also has a gift for plot development, a far rarer quality these days. While his final twist, if you want to call it that, is ultimately a tad too predictable, and another "surprise" seems telegraphed (as much in the playing as in the writing), he has at least a trick or two well hidden up his authorial sleeve.

If The Pain and the Itch seems unusually polished, part of the reason is that Shapiro directed the play's world premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in the summer of 2005. However, the only cast member Shapiro retained for this production is the always-extraordinary Houdyshell, who deftly paints a portrait of a much-different mother than she did in Well. She is matched, and even occasionally bettered, by her on-stage counterparts. Welch, whose Clay is a time bomb constantly about to explode, is poignant and hilarious, while Barron, given the show's most thankless role, finds the right palette of colors for the uptight Kelly. Rogers, who has consistently impressed in shows as varied as The Dazzle and Bach at Leipzig, pulls no punches as the mostly unpleasant Cash, and Fernandez displays the perfect combination of quiet dignity and hidden strength as the mysterious Mr. Hadid.

But if the show has one standout performance, it's from Aya Cash, a relative newcomer to the New York stage. She takes the theoretically stereotypical role of Kalina and makes her not just hysterical (in both senses of the word) but smart -- even wise -- in a way that none of the more educated characters on stage can hope to match. It's the kind of performance that could -- and should -- be remembered during awards season.

It remains to be seen if New York audiences are ultimately willing to laugh at Norris' less-than flattering version of themselves. If so, The Pain and the Itch is not only a satire that won't close on Saturday night; it could become Playwrights Horizons' next commercial hit.