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A CurtainUp Review
Thom Pain (based on nothing)
Thom Pain is a monodrama, performed originally in London and New York by James Urbaniak, and now, in the Signature Theater's first-rate revival, by Michael C. Hall. Eno's protagonist is a man on the early side of middle age who's looking back in whimsy at — yes, you've guessed it — the pain of his stop-and-go life.
Thom's recollections, though colorfully phrased, are often cryptic, with a seeming randomness that guarantees the audience occasional surprise if little in the way of suspense. Given to word play, Thom characterizes himself as "trying." "I'm trying. A trying man. A feeling thing, in a wordy body."
Thom begins his memoir in the third person: it's a narrative of a "little boy in a cowboy suit, writing in a puddle with a stick." Then, with little or no transition, he's referring to the little boy as a man "making his way in the business world." Before long, he loops back to a moment when the little boy witnesses his dog electrocuted while drinking from a puddle. That night the boy has his first wet dream and the next day he's stung by a swarm of bees. Life, as the adage goes, is just one damned thing after another.
Shifting into the first person singular, Thom fast forwards to a love affair with a woman he doesn't characterize at all vividly and whom he seems not to have understood very well. "I disappeared into her and she, wondering where I went, left," he tells us.
"The child," as Wordsworth says, "is father of the man," and the adult Thom Pain is still that small boy in the cowboy suit who watched his dog die and was pursued by a swarm of bees. "When did your childhood end?" Thom asks the audience. "How badly did you get hurt" when you were a "wee little hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words?"
I saw Thom Pain in 2005, soon after it opened in New York. The play struck me then, and strikes me now, as intriguing on the surface, with what's beneath having only a glancing connection to lived experience. The script is a series of smooth, at times dazzling, set pieces that must be catnip to an ambitious actor but leave a reflective playgoer unsatisfied. As recast with Michael C. Hall and performed on a much larger stage with a more complicated scenic design by Amy Rubin, the 2018 Thom Pain is no more satisfying; but the magnified scale of this production suits the grandiosity of Eno's exercise in synthetic Beckettry.
Director Oliver Butler has chosen an actor with ideal stage presence to fill the cavernous Irene Diamond Stage, the largest of the four performance venues in the Pershing Square Signature Center. Even in the pitch darkness of the play's initial scene, Hall grabs the audience's attention; and he holds it firmly through even the most lackluster moments of Eno's 70-minute script. Hall, with his Kennedy-esque looks and slightly southern intonation, balances the lugubriousness of Thom's ruminations with the ineluctable charm he lends to every role he undertakes. At times, though, that charm goes against the grain of what Eno has written.
In the revised script for this revival, Eno describes Thom as a "wounded, stray-dog type . . . with an odd intellectual aspect," who's "cold, grave" and "capable of great cruelty." Hall is hardly the cold personality Eno envisions. On the contrary, he gives poor Thom a relaxed geniality that suggests he may have been, not long ago, a self-assured freshman courted by all the campus fraternities. Playing the agonized Mr. Pain, the charming Mr. Hall reminds us that all lives, even those that seem charmed, are laced with suffering.
Despite the benefit of Hall's fine performance, Eno's play is likely to be as polarizing in 2018 as it was in 2005. Many spectators are bound to be unnerved by two sequences in which the actor ambles around the wide aisles of the Diamond auditorium, threatening to pluck a spectator from the crowd to join him on stage. With a lethargy that's harrowing, he surveys the audience, focusing from time to time on an individual, then moving on. In these scenes, playwright and actor exploit with relentless efficiency the playgoer's nightmare of being dragged unceremoniously into the spotlight and held to ridicule in front of a crowd.
The fact that Thom Pain (based on nothing) is getting this superb revival suggests that there's a sizable audience that will share Charles Isherwood's enthusiasm for Eno's Beckett-inflected navel-gazing. Others, though, are bound to identify with the hapless audience member to whom Hall, as poor Mr. Pain, says, "If I were you, I'd be sick of this already. I'd feel restless. I'd feel like eating or urinating." Or, perhaps, be wishing for an intermission to permit a discreet exit.
You might want to revisit Elyse Sommer's 2014 two-part feature about the solo play, the second part of which inccludes comments by Will Eno, the author of Thom Pain (based on nothing). The links herewith:
Solo Play-part 1
Solo Play-part 2
Search CurtainUp in the box below
. Thom Pain (based on nothing) by Will Eno
Directed by Oliver Butler
Cast: Michael C. Hall (Thom Pain)
Scenic Design: Amy Rubin
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Lighting Design: Jenn Schriever
Sound Design: Lee Kinney
Production Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III
Running Time: 65 minutes without intermission Presented by Signature Theatre in its Irene Diamond Stage (480 West 42nd Street); www.signaturetheater.org
From 10/23/18; opened 11/11/18; closing 12/09/18
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a press performance on 11/08/18
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