11/12/2013 09:38 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Scratching One's Head About The Pain and the Itch

For some reason, those who vote for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama over at Columbia University are often smitten by the mufti-generational family saga. It worked quite a few times for O'Neill and plays like Sam Shepard's Buried Child and Tracy Letts's August: Osage County (soon to be released as a film).

The awarding of the Pulitzer to Bruce Norris for his Clybourne Park, however, seemed more for a play that trotted out racism under the surface of its Chicago area characters than anything else. Norris revels in having his characters say crude things to each other, which can suffice for a more formalized dramatic structure. But in The Pain and the Itch, now at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood, Norris seems to be doubling down on shock, often for its own sake.

Clay (Eric Hunicutt) had to put down a pet so his wife Kelly (Beverly Hynds) could have their second child without hypoallergenic issues, but they seem incapable of treating the misbehavior or an oft-mentioned infection of the genitals of their little girl Kayla (Kiara Lisette Gamboa). Increasing the chaos of a Thanksgiving dinner is the presence of Clay's arrogant right-wing brother Cash (Trent Dawson), his young Russian wife Kalina (Beth Triffon), equally racist, and Clay's mother Carol (April Adams), whose memory is going and whose favoritism toward Cash constantly threatens to sink the proceedings in a mire of bitter recriminations.

What is most interesting about Norris's structure of The Pain and the Itch is the presence of Mr. Hadid (Joe Holt), whose anomalous appearance, as it is eventually revealed in Act II, is because his wife was a former maid to the household. Through a series of miscommunications of this self-absorbed clan, Mr. Hadid's wife dies of a diabetic coma and he wants an explanation. While there are some truly exciting exchanges of overt hostility, Norris sells out his ending, adding too many revelations and failing to have any condemnation of the antics at this dysfunction-at-the-junction.

The acting ranges from the inspired to the insipid, alas. Adams is utterly marvelous as the daffy, in-denial matriarch. Holt shows great range with a sadly underwritten role. Most of the others are solid but without nuance and in the case of Triffon, her atrocious Act I Russian dialect improves little as the proceedings wear on. Director Jennifer Chambers regretfully does not find subtlety among the boorish characters and most of all, Norris has been convinced that merely letting a group of relatives tear each other apart without insight is dramaturgy. I blame the Pulitzer community for encouraging him.