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A CurtainUp Review
Thom Pain (based on nothing

Please don't say you were out watching someone being clever.
---- Thom Pain
James Urbaniak
James Urbaniak
It was exactly one year ago since Will Eno's play The Flu Season rushed the stage. In that bombastic non-linear exercise a twosome's relationship was parsed amid the trappings of a mental health facility. Actor James Urbaniak was a mere prop in that play -- his distinctive voice emanating from the television. He's been upgraded here to the very center of this endeavor -- as its lead and sole character, Thom Pain.

In describing this Edinburgh Festival import it's tempting to bandy about words such as existential, metaphysical, and for the trifecta, ontological to describe the style and worldview at work here -- but that would give the false impression that the play is disengaged from reality -- that it lives entirely in the abstract, the theoretical. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, playwright Eno has written a screed of a monologue, stripping it of a conventional story arc -- not for reasons of efficacy but all the better to reveal scars that haven't healed while hinting at internal bleeding. He has created a memory piece - but one that is indelible.

After pairing with Eno for the Flu Season Hal Brooks again directs with deadly aim and Swiss timing. In Urbaniak he's found an actor who can go from urbane to jaundiced in seconds flat. The actor has made a speciality is affixing the oft-kilter (from Buster the shoe fetishist in Sex and the City, as R. Crumb in American Splendor). At a glance his voice has a similar cadence to Frasier's David Hyde Pierce (now in Spamalot) but he projects a danger unseen in Niles Crane. He's seething just beneath the surface, spewing forth 500 shades of venom. He commands Eno's lustrous language -- making the scabrous monologue tangible with his wily tongue, glissading from the driest of martinis tippling to Chinese Water Torture.

There is meta at work here. Just as The Flu Season self-consciously included off-stage characters Prologue and Epilogue to comment upon the action, Thom Pain himself vaults into the audience -- a curmudgeonly Oprah -- asking for volunteers, and on one occasion, directs the spotlight to be moved stage left. His request is denied.

Fifteen years ago filmmaker Albert Brooks released Defending Your Life, a caustic comedy which examined how fear holds us back. Thom Pain struck me as Defending Your Life as a tragedy -- still quite corrosively funny but without a trace of sentimentality. While Brooks appears defensively before a tribunal who will decide whether or not he will advance in the Universe -- essentially for an emotional autopsy -- Thom Pain is unrepentant.

Standing before a jury of his peers -- as he did the night I encountered him -- he alternatively toys with his audience, trotting out the feints of raffles and of pink elephants. Always, Eno has given his actor fantastical and disarming anecdotes to share. Overall, this 90 minute piece is a glorious mess. In the hands of a lesser actor it might strain for credibility, but Urbaniak is a kinetic ball of verbiage and contempt- wresting the maudlin from the banal while invoking bales of laughter from discomfited audience members. Despite Eno's concision Urbaniak delivers them as stream of consciousness with a spontaneity that suggests he's just been fed the lines from downstage. My companion loved the piece as well, but as we were leaving he observed, "Will Eno had a bad breakup."

Let's hope that the trio of Eno, Brooks, Urbaniak manages to stay together -- creating a compact in the vein of Michaels Frayn and Blakemore (Copenhagen, Noises Off, Democracy) -- allowing them to explore the darkest recesses of the soul with but the propulsion of language and an actor of rare talents.

To read a review of Will Eno's Flu Season go here.

Thom Pain (based on nothing)
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Hal Brooks
cast: James Urbaniak
Lighting design: Mark Barton
Scenic consultant: David Korins
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
DR2 Theater, 103 East 15th Street. 212-239-6200
Performances Tuesday-Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 6 and 9pm; Sunday at 3 and 7pm
1/25/05 to 4/03/05--extended to 7/03/05 and again to 9/04/05; opening 2/01/05
Tickets: $45
Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on a January 29th, 6pm performance.
With T. Ryder Smith stepping in to give James Urbaniac a chance to rest up from his long stint, the solo play has been extended once again, to 12/31/05
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