bruce norris

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.

Continues…