Adam Rapp and Bruce Norris: Back to the Great Depression, sucker

Kelly (Valerie Stevens) and Clay (Damon Kupper) in "The Pain and the Itch"/Owen Carey

On my way into Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s “The Pain and the Itch,” I ran into Third Rail member Michael O’Connell, manning the table outside the Winningstad Theatre. I mentioned that I was going to see “Animals and Plants” the next afternoon, knowing that O’Connell had directed the show for CoHo Productions.

O’Connell looked up and me and said that he’d be interested in what I had to say about it, that he’d gotten so close to the play in the process of directing it that maybe he’d lost sight of what it really was about. And then he suggested that I “buckle up” before seeing it.

I didn’t take what O’Connell said at face value. He’s a thoughtful guy, and I bet he has some very good ideas about what “Animals and Plants” is about. On the other hand, I know what it’s like to work hard on something, get to a stopping place and wonder, “what the heck was that all about?” And, because we are human and can entertain two separate, seemingly mutually exclusive descriptions of our inner thinking at the same time, I think it’s completely possible that both things were true: He both knew what the play was about and wondered what it was about at the same time!

After seeing “Animals and Plants,” I think I now know what he meant, though. What was that 95 minutes about, for goodness sakes?

Fortunately, I’d also seen “The Pain and the Itch,” about which I had similar thoughts. And oddly, when I rubbed the two plays together in my mind I caught the glimmer of an idea.

Both plays are about the powerful and the weak. The powerful are immoral and hypocritical. The weak are suckers, easily bullied and/or manipulated. And the powerful believe in the wisdom of W.C. Fields: “Never give a sucker an even break.”  They never do, at least in Adam Rapp’s “Animals and Plants” and Bruce Norris’s “The Pain and the Itch.” And maybe this uncomfortable way of looking at the world is a warning to us from the Great Depression.
Is it really possible to reduce two very different plays to these few assertions? Let’s start with “The Pain and the Itch.”

First of all, though, I’m glad that Third Rail has moved to the Winningstad Theatre, a theater I’ve always enjoyed, small but with that distinctive courtyard theater layout, with two steep, shallow balconies. Back in the days when Tygres Heart Shakespeare Company roamed the Earth, the theater was deployed in various ways, though rarely as intended, with the playing area at the bottom and seats set around it, including what usually serves as the proscenium stage in most productions at the theater, including “The Pain and the Itch.” It’s going to be fun to see what Third Rail manages to do with the space.

The set-up is complicated because the action goes back and forth between two different times — Thanksgiving and the following January. Thanksgiving scenes are a sort of “flashback,” an effort to explain to a character known as Mr. Hadid (John San Nicholas) what transpired. For Thanksgiving dinner, an upper-middle class family has gathered: The unhappily married Kelly (Valerie Stevens) and Clay (Damon Kupper), their two children (one a baby), Clay’s mother Carol (Jacklyn Maddux), his brother Cash (Duffy Epstein) and Cash’s girlfriend Kalina (Amy Beth Frankel), who is eastern European, young and very sexy. During the flashbacks, Mr. Hadid is there as an observer.In this case, the class of the Weak has one primary member: Clay. He’s a stay-at-home dad, his wife makes all the money and constantly tries to show him how much more evolved she is as a parent, his mother favors his brother and Clay fears him. And maybe envies him for his girlfriend, among other things. Clay is the butt of the jokes, he talks all the time but nobody really listens because in important ways he’s invisible.

The plot involves the “itch” of the title, which is a problem Kelly and Clay’s little girl has. It’s a rash, a bad rash, and it is in a couple of delicate places, very delicate. And Clay, who is the primary caregiver, feels guilty about it. He feels so guilty that we start to wonder, and then he himself starts to wonder. Has he done something to her?

That’s all at Thanksgiving. In January, Mr. Hadid is assessing the wealth of the family. We’re not sure why at first, though eventually we start to put the puzzle together and figure out that it has to do with his wife, who cleaned house for Kelly and Clay. And something bad has happened to her.

OK: one of the primary pleasures of this play is solving its various mysteries. I won’t get into the various plot twists and key pieces of information. But that means you’re going to have to trust me when I say that Clay is a sucker and Kupper plays him perfectly, yapping and sweating, his attempts at fighting back rebuffed or ignored, his gathering hysteria about his daughter and a possible rodent infestation threatening to overflow at any moment. Everyone takes their shots at him, and everyone lies to him and to themselves.

Is it about the money? You bet it is. And is sex involved? I should have seen that one coming.

Christopher David Murray and Joe Bolenbaugh in "Animals and Plants"/Gary Norman

“Animals and Plants” is set in a far smaller, far shabbier room, the Daniel Boone room in a cheap hotel in Boone, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. (I’ve spent some time in Boone, but that’s another story.)

The play opens with Burris (Christopher David Murray) and Dantly (Joe Bolenbaugh) settled in and surrounded by pizza boxes and the stuffed critters “decorating” the room. Burris never really settles, of course. Like Clay, he’s a yapper, but his vocabulary is surprisingly complex and even well-employed, mostly. He doesn’t just talk. Oh no. He exercises. Apparently, he’s sent away for every exercise device offered for $19.99 in the distant reaches of cable television, and he goes from one to the other, flexing this way and that. And spraying Right Guard hither and yon.

Dantly lies in bed, throwing in the odd sentence or two, and yeah, very odd. He’s the bigger of the two, but he doesn’t seem very menacing, even though we learn right away that the two are glorified errand boys, in Boone to exchange a bag of cash for a bag of psychedelic mushrooms. They are waiting for a call to make the deal, and Dantly at least is hoping Cassandra (Nikki Weaver) will drop by. They met at the headshop down the road, and she said she might call or come over.

You know our schematic by now, right? Burris is the Strong; Dantly is the Weak. Burris is going to lie to Dantly and do him dirty, one way or another, even though they’ve worked together for 10 years, “a decade,” as Dantly says, echoing Burris.

Cassandra DOES show up (Burris has given her 50 bucks to do so), and she’s a little harder to schematize. She’s Weak, on the lam from her ex, who happens to occupy the Davy Crockett room in the same motel. But she has some psychic talents and the soothing command of a Dantly Whisperer. Pretty soon he opens up to her, and they are bouncing on the bed together singing a song from an old TV Christmas special. But Dantly is the sucker. The breaks aren’t going to even out. By the end of the play, Dantly is going to be alone with doom hovering outside like the howling blizzard that’s a backdrop to the action.

Never give a sucker an even break.

The line appeared in two W.C. Fields movies before it became the title of a third. All three were during the Depression, desperate times. In the first, “Poppy,” Fields turns to his daughter: “If we should ever separate, my little plum, I want to give you just one bit of fatherly advice: Never give a sucker an even break!”

Are our times as desperate as those? Not per the economic data, but the drift of things makes our situation seem as bad, as the balance of income between the rich and the poor tilts more and more one way, not to sound like an Occupy Wall Street protester. Though they make a point.

What makes a sucker, a sucker? In these two plays, even though they seem very different, the suckers are blind to the signs, riddled with self-doubt, don’t understand the main chance, don’t get what’s at stake. They are self-deluding, easy marks.

Which makes them a lot like us, at least some of the time, right?

Before I left for a long trip abroad during college, my father, who rarely offered me much advice, sent me off with this warning: Don’t be part of someone else’s con game. I was baffled by that one. Con games? But he grew up during the Depression, and he worried that I was a sucker — maybe I’d leave my passport with someone while I tended to other business or fall prey to some scam or another.

In another movie, W.C. Fields refined his advice: “You can’t cheat an honest man; never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump.”
So, yeah, who’s an honest man, Diogenes? Rapp and Norris are suggesting that no one is all that honest, everyone can be conned, the Strong will take advantage of the Weak, and maybe those designations are always in flux, though that last one might just be my own corollary. (Or as P.T. Barnum is alleged to have said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”) The strong will lie, and they will take away everything they can. The only solace for us suckers? Strong isn’t the same as Happy.

Is it as simple as all that, “The Pain and the Itch” and “Animals and Plants”? Oh, not really. Information of all sorts — descriptions, hypotheses, underlying logic and psychological understanding — is exchanged when actors start bumping up against each other. And these actors were all quite good, alive on stage, open to each other’s frequencies, bringing their own sub-rational or post-rational gloss to their characters. Plays just aren’t THAT reducible, or shouldn’t be.

The question, “What’s that play about?”, isn’t an indictment of a play, though sometimes we take it that way. We don’t expect Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” to reveal itself to us in one setting, do we?

But there’s an edge to these plays that is creeping into other contemporary plays, I think, a cynicism about ourselves and the culture we make, minute by minute. It could be that we’re headed for a period in the arts that’s a lot like the Great Depression. Just don’t be a sucker.

5 Responses.

  1. Chris Murray says:

    Hey, what a great article. I think these two shows are linked in more ways than the people involved or the themes.

    I think these two plays are showing a side of American Theatre that is not neat and tidy.

    These are the kinds of plays that are written before the American playwright discovers how lucrative working for television is.

    I am proud of the work of these two companies, and I am proud of the messiness of these playwrights.

  2. Mike O'Connell says:

    Thanks Barry, really appreciate the insight.
    After seeing Pain and the Itch this weekend I thought of “The Homecoming” by Pinter. I also thought of “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf” and then Moliere. Some patrons pointed out the need for a hero,or at least a character who is sympathetic enough to be the way in to the show. While I had moments of despising all of the characters I also had moments of absolute compassion. It tested my tolerence. Norris seems to be in-between satire and dark comedy. Personally I like the mix.
    I never intended for Dantly to be a sucker. I’ll have to look for that next time I see it. I don’t think any one character has a great deal of power over the other, like Pain and Itch they are all in crisis have only each other to find help or obstacles. There was this strange George and Lenny thing happening I was simultaneously rejecting and embracing. To me, Dantly’s last moments on stage are weirdly hopeful.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Chris & Mike, thanks for commenting, and for you playing along at home, Chris plays Burris in “Animals and Plants” and Mike directed the show.

      ‘I never intended for Dantly to be a sucker.’

      I guess I’m afraid he doesn’t have a choice, because Burris is getting out of there with the cash and the car (and the bear wounds!). And Cassandra is leaking, and we know what that means! She also clears out… as weak as she is, she recognizes someone a little weaker in the order of things.

      I agree that the Strong are in crisis, too, in both plays, and on their way toward becoming suckers themselves for somebody else to exploit. (Mr. Hadid in Pain + Itch, for example.) I found it interesting, though, that both Clay and Dantly end their plays in tears (though Clay is angry about it…)

      Chris, I’m totally with you on the messy part. If I want a slick, no-loose-ends, paint-by-the-number narrative, I know exactly where to find it. In this culture, we need the provocation of theater and especially the provocation of voices like these, and part of the provocation, I think at least, is that you’re left puzzling over things once the curtain drops and the applause dies down.

      By the way, Chris, I loved your collection of exercise “toys”! I think you should do an audience talkback during which you demonstrate each one and talk about its toning effects!

  3. Ronni Lacroute says:

    Thank you, Barry, for initiating an exceptionally interesting conversation about two plays that are disturbing and endlessly thought-provoking, the kind of theatre that does let you relax in your seat.
    I seek out this type of theater precisely because it takes me out of my comfort zone. There is no character in Animals and Plants with whom I can sympathize or identify. Dantly may be weak and deserving of a break, but he also does not make an effort to break his strange habits or take any initiative in his personal interactions. He won’t leave the comfort of the bed to move around the room. It’s hard to watch such a passive character, but the play forces me to watch him for 95 minutes and face my discomfort with him.
    The Pain and the Itch was similarly irritating, offensive, and uncomfortable, not offering up likeable characters or entertaining interactions. Even Mr. Hadad does not really invite much sympathy because of his materialistic assessment of the family’s net worth.
    So I still like these plays, admire their distinctive characters, their use of language, their exploration of power relationships, and their window into American society.
    There is continual dramatic tension in both plays, leaving the audience on edge, uncomfortable, and asking questions. This makes for a very fine theatrical experience.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      It’s weird to watch these plays, feel barely a shred of “sympathy” for any of the characters (maybe Cassandra in “Animals and Plants”?) and still be involved in them, pretty much beginning to end.

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