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A CurtainUp Review
The Poor Itch
An (Unfinished) Play

Everyone in my life who I thought would be strong and help me get through this. . .They all left me alone, on an empty island. And this wheelchair, it's going to turn me into an island that's what it's going to do to me, to the rest of my life. I just know it. I'm going to become a small, empty island surrounded by endless blue ocean.—Ian, apologizing to his mother after after anger and pain have driven him into a violent outburst that made even her turn against him.

What's the matter, you dissentious rogues
That rubbing the poor itch of your opinions,
Make yourselves scabs?

Christopher Thornton (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The untimely death of John Belluso in 2006 makes The Poor Itch a double tragedy-- the tragedy of a young American returning from the Iraq war mentally as well as physically crippled. . .and the tragedy of the premature death of a gifted young writer who was able to use his own handicap to write insightful and moving plays about the disabled and their friends, caretakers and loved ones. But director Lisa Peterson and the actors who worked with Belluso during the play's development process have not allowed The Poor Itch, as Ian, the troubled Iraq veteran at its center puts it, to disappear into "a small, empty island. " Thus, the production they have created for the Public Theater's worthy new LAB series is a double joy: a wonderful example of collegial love; and a unique and enormously affecting and respectful way to present an unfinished work with thrilling theatricality.

What Peterson and the cast have done is to have the actors regularly step out of character to announce which version of the unfinished script (Belluso wrote five versions) would follow. At times, a scene from one version is replayed as written in another. For some scenes that Belluso never got to write but made notes for, those notes are read before moving to the next scenes.

Given the chaos of Ian's go nowhere, love starved, drug-filled real world and the dreams of the horrendous war experiences that haunt him and keep him from seeing a psychiatrist, this jagged style of story telling works extremely well. Per this series' title, this remains a work in progress that has undergone changes and some cuts even since the initial performance. But, whether future productions will feature the actors as announcers format and multiple scene staging, The Painful Itch along with George Packer's Betrayed (review), is one of the most powerful plays to have come out of the awful Iraq conflict.

No small measure of what makes the Public Lab production an evening of meaningful, gripping theater is attributable to the fine performances, from the central character to the ensemble players. Both Christopher Thornton (himself wheelchair bound as a result of an accident) and Deidre O'Connell have appeared in Belluso plays before (together in Gretty Good Time, and O'Connell in A Nervous Smile--see links below).

Thornton grabs hard at your heart as the War veteran who has as much trouble coming to grips with some of the awful things he witnessed and took part in (this is probably the first time you'll see waterboarding actually carried out on stage) as with his lack of mobility. Deidre O'Connell, an actress long overdue for a starring role in a major, long running play, gives an as always warm and nuanced performance as Ian's mother. Also excellent are Michael Chernus as Ian's best friend, who is messed up even without having been to war, and Susan Pourfar as his pregnant girlfriend with whom Ian had an affair before he left for Iraq. Alicia Goranson is uniquely endearing as Ian's no-nonsense but sympathetic visiting nurse. Also impressive are the actors appearing through Ian's dreams: Marc Damon Johnson as Ian's friend and commanding officer and Piter Marek as a singing blind translator with whom he travels Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer like on a raft down the Tigris River.

For a play series that announced itself as being "minimally" staged, this production has remarkably fine visual and oral support. Ben Stanton's lighting is particularly noteworthy and a door that appears in Ian's dreams is typical of the imagination and care invested to make this play as enjoyable and memorable as it is painful.

Unfortunately, The Poor Itch ends its run this weekend. The good news, is that there are three more Public Lab productions coming up:
THE CIVILIANS' PARIS COMMUNE April 4 - 20 By Steven Cosson and Michael Friedman. Directed by Steven Cosson
THE FEVER CHART: THREE VISIONS OF THE MIDDLE EAST April 25 - May 11 By Naomi Wallace. Directed by Jo Bonney
THE GOOD NEGRO May 16 - June 1 By Tracey Scott Wilson. Directed by Liesl Tommy
PENALTIES & INTEREST June 10- 28 By Rebecca Cohen.
SWEET STORM June 28 - 29 By Scott Hudson. Directed by Padriac Lillis

Other John Beluso Plays We've Reviewed:
Gretty Good Times
Nervous Smile

By John Belluso
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Cast: Michael Chernus (Curt), Alicia Goranson (Katie), Marc Damon Johnson (McGowan), Piter Marek (the Singing Translator/Ensemble), Deirdre O'Connell (Coral), John Ottavino (Delay/Roberts/Ensemble), Susan Pourfar (Erica), Renaldy Smith (Vince/Ensemble) and Christopher Thornton (Ian)
Sets by Rachel Hauck
Costumes by Gabriel Berry
Lighting by Ben Stanton
Original music and sound by Robert Kaplowitz
Public Lab Series, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, a (212) 967-7555. From 3/07/08; closing 3/23/08.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including inermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on March 19th

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