The “scratching” in the new show of that title by young playwright Britton Buttrill, at Pinch ‘n’ Ouch Theatre through September 15, refers to unlicensed tattooing, and it’s done here by the down-on-his-luck character Christian (Barrett Doyle). Christian was once an up-and-coming young tattoo artist in New York, but drugs and the resulting unsteady hand caused him to lose his license, and he’s now living in a trailer park somewhere outside Atlanta, trying to cobble together a life by “scratching” and undercutting the local tattoo parlor.
He’s found a decent, if tenuous and volatile, relationship with his new girlfriend, Brianna (Julissa Sabino), a dancer at a truck stop strip club, and things start to get tense when Brianna’s menacing, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend Adrian (Bennett Walton) comes back to town at the same time Christian’s ex, Tracy (Stephanie Friedman), arrives to see if she can dig Christian out of the hole he’s in.
Buttrill has a nicely tight focus here on a set of four interesting characters, all at moments of crisis and choice. He gives us a sordid world without ever painting a superficial, oversimplified or exploitative picture. The four talented leads take a simple and direct approach to the work as well.
The play delves into the relationship that develops between Tracy and Adrian, who meet by chance at the cheap motel where they’re both staying. A scene that intercuts the dialogue of the two couples — Tracy and Adrian at the motel and Brianna and Christian at home — is brilliantly done, hands-down one of “Scratching’s” best, exploring the complicated and weird interstitial maneuverings and interconnected desires of the four characters. The adaptable set by Chelsea Stevenson, with its bare incandescent lights, deftly emphasizes the strange and claustrophobic environment the characters find themselves in.
But the wild intensity of the relationship that eventually develops between Tracy and Adrian is hard to believe, and the violent ending depends on our belief and interest in it. A situation that finds Brianna and Tracy stuck together is likewise somewhat hard to accept, but it has the advantage of being far more interesting.
As symbolism, tattooing and scratching arrive pre-interpreted, and though Buttrill has a fine touch and manages to get away with it more than anyone should, in the end it’s relied on too much. The sordid, languorous atmosphere of the play certainly comes across strongly, though it can feel a bit familiar at times: it’s the type of play where not a single scene goes by without someone taking a swig of whiskey, and even without being told, you’d probably be able to guess that one of the characters will start softly singing a Hank Williams tune.
Still, as always, the artists of Pinch ‘n’ Ouch deserve mad props for putting together a polished production of strong and interesting new work by a Georgia playwright.