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Theater group Company One’s latest play looks for the comedy in everyday tragedies

Victoria Leenders-Cheng | 3/11/2009, 6:49 a.m.

Theater group Company One’s latest play looks for the comedy in everyday tragedies

Think of “The Pain and the Itch” as emotional boot camp for the soul. Company One’s new production puts audiences through a rough-and-tumble workout in which no subject, from race to intimations of child abuse, is too difficult or risqué to tackle.

That may sound daunting to prospective audience members in search of entertainment. But Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount argues that the theatrical approach of “taking social issues and putting them under a microscope” is ultimately cathartic — and worthwhile.

“We’re framing parts of the human experience that really need questioning,” LaCount told the Banner in an interview last week. “How do we as a society, a city, a family or individual approach our relationships and social situations?”

“The Pain and the Itch,” which debuts Friday at the BCA Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, is equal parts mystery and comedy, with a pinch of satire thrown in for good measure. The action revolves around the interactions of a white upper class family, LaCount explained.

“Throughout the play, they are retelling the story of their Thanksgiving dinner to a black man,” he said. That dinner is dominated by concern about the well-being of the family’s young daughter and the presence of a mysterious creature in the house that has been eating the family’s avocadoes.

“We’re not sure why the family is telling the man the story, and the play slowly unravels why he needs to know the information and how important and powerful he becomes in the eyes of the family,” LaCount said.

The play’s portrayal of a self-consciously well-educated family ranges from satiric to downright harsh. It exposes the delusions and inconsistencies of a married couple who are fastidious about their children’s physical safety — they carry their infant around in “a high-tech papoose” and try to keep the house free of potentially harmful chemicals — but remain oblivious to their children’s emotional needs, often forgetting that their preschool-age daughter is present when arguments turn into expletive-laden shouting matches.

Written by actor-turned-playwright Bruce Norris, the Boston production is directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, an artistic associate at the Huntington Theatre Company.

“I really think that Bruce has a cutting way of getting right to the heart of America today,” said O’Gara.

“Most people who would see this play can see something of themselves in it, but it’s not necessarily uncomfortable, because it’s a comedy and gives you the tension release to be able to laugh at yourself,” she added.

The casting process for the production presented a number of challenges, according to LaCount.

“One of the reasons why this play is so controversial is because it calls for a very young girl to be around this difficult family,” he said.

O’Gara explained that three girls between the ages of 7 and 8 alternate in their role as the lone child of the play, while a doll stands in for the married couple’s infant.