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Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 11, 2018


Michael C. Hall
Photo by Joan Marcus

Samuel Beckett said, "Words are all we have," and, "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness." Will Eno's Beckettian one-person play Thom Pain (based on nothing) starring Michael C. Hall, demonstrates the futility of words and the limitations of language to connect thought with feeling, experience with reflection, and the individual with the world. Words are slippery, unreliable, and illusive, so is it even possible to make sense of life in all of its absurdity?

This failure to connect is at the heart of character Thom Pain's hour-long discursive, confounding, and invigorating monologue. He begins several times to tell the story of his life, but he is consistently stymied by the usual dramatic and theatrical conventions. Stories, for example, lack a narrative arc; jokes do not have punch lines; and audience participation does not conjoin performer with spectator. But this does not stop him from attempting to tell his life story and embodying Beckett's dictum, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Along the way, there are flashes of Pain's traumatic childhood and unsuccessful relationships, but these are couched in reminders that suffering is a necessary component of life's existential paradox: "Injuries and wounds, ladies and gents. Slights and abuses, oh what a paradise," he says. "Living in fear, suiting the hurt to our need. I'm serious. What a happy life. What a good game." Nihilism has never felt so reassuring.

Lest one think Thom Pain makes for miserable company, Eno has created a highly entertaining, poignant, and intellectually stimulating evening. There are deadpan witticisms sprinkled throughout (describing a failed love affair, he says, "Except for all of our unfixable problems, everything was perfect"), and stunning images (such as a childhood incident with bees) that linger long after the performance ends.

As Thom Pain, Hall is outstanding. He has the requisite charm to bring the audience into his confidence, while sporadically gesturing toward the seething bitterness and sadness just below the surface. He is alternately vulnerable and a little threatening. Additionally, Pain claims to have a "rich interior life," and Hall gives the persona a finely porous mask that allows him to keep anger and anguish mostly at bay, yet there are periodic leaks through the fa├žade.

Under Oliver Butler's direction, this is also a master class in comedy. In the style of the comic geniuses specializing in wordplay (think Groucho Marx), Hall's Thom Pain keeps the audience in a state of imbalance, nonchalantly insulting them after complimenting them. He says, for instance, "You're all so wonderful, I'd like to take you home, leave you there, and then go somewhere else." And, "I'm the type of person you might not hear from for sometime, but then, suddenly, one day, bang, you never hear from me again."

The original New York production was performed in the 99-seat DR2 Theatre in Union Square. Within such coziness James Urbaniak's slightly disheveled Thom Pain mingled among the audience, occasionally flirting with them, sometimes berating them, and often reminding them of their own spiritual loneliness and impending mortality. Entering the considerably larger, 300-seat Irene Diamond Stage at the Signature Center on 42nd Street, I was afraid the intimacy would be significantly diminished.

Not to worry. The larger space intensifies the feelings of isolation and makes the character's attempt to bond with the audience even more moving and amusing. In the comparative vastness of the stage Hall's Pain seems punier, but as a standup existentialist he more than fills the space. Likewise, the stage itself has its own dangers and obstructions.

There is a handwritten sign just outside the entrance stating, "Pardon Our Appearance," and not unlike the character's damaged psyche, the theatre bears the scars of past productions and exists in a state of ambivalent incompleteness. The entire theatre is configured as a construction zone with blue debris netting hanging from the ceiling, and there are gaping, treacherous holes in the stage. (Amy Rubin is credited as the scenic designer, and with a seeming absence of scenery even that designation is used ironically in this production. Similarly, Jen Schreiver's excellent lighting is notable in its uncooperativeness in lighting the performer.)

The original production divided audiences and critics. (After reading the rave in the New York Times, a close friend paid full price and complained, "I felt duped!") The most effective way to experience the play is to give oneself over to it and luxuriate in the moments of linguistic playfulness and emotional catharsis. As Thom Pain says, "I stopped thinking and just let everything come. Let the words run. They came and went, disappeared. Like the things they stood for. Like they're doing now."


Thom Pain (based on nothing)
Through December 9
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: signaturetheatre.org


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