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Theatre in Review: Thom Pain (based on nothing) (Signature Theatre)

Michael C. Hall. Photo: Joan Marcus.

A great many members of the press -- and, based on the Show-Score numbers, a fair number of regular theatregoers -- have found much to love in Thom Pain (based on nothing). I am baffled by this phenomenon. Indeed, I'm mystified by the entirety of Will Eno's play, beginning with the title, which seems to reach in the direction of cleverness before pausing, thinking about it, and giving up altogether. The title character -- the only character, if you discount an audience recruit and a plant who is heard but not really seen -- is a man in his thirties or forties experiencing a kind of existential crisis rooted in childhood trauma and a broken romantic relationship. I can't give you additional details -- not out of fear of disclosing any spoilers but because Eno has no interest in exploring the situation, deepening it, or bringing it to a resolution. Instead, he lets his title character circle his wounds, burying them in layer upon layer of words.

The program notes for Thom Pain assert that Eno's writing has several virtues, one of which is "existential humor." As an example, Thom, addressing the audience, says, "A little boy in a cowboy suit, writing in a puddle with a stick, a dog approaching. Deaf or dumb, the boy is, or, like anyone, a little timid, partly stupid, ashamed, afraid, like us, like you. Our little boy is wearing shorts, shoes, no socks, no cowboy boots." He goes on for roughly two hundred words, painting a picture of an abject youth, before adding, almost as an afterthought, "Now go fuck yourselves."

Or try this one on for size: "Does it scare you? Being face to face with the modern mind? It should. There is no reason for you not to be afraid. None. Or, I don't know. (Gently.) Shall I save your life? Shall I love you slowly and be true? Shall I stroke your cheek, gently, almost not at all, and bring you a glass of cold water in the restless humid night? Whatever." At this point, an audience plant, seemingly irritated by Thom's wordy ways, stalks out of the theatre, slamming the door behind him. "Au revoir," says Thom, adding a certain four-letter word that begins with the letter C.

In the first case, the use of the F-bomb not only fails to shock, it doesn't even do the job of bringing the preceding graph to an attention-getting halt. It's a lazy provocation, an easy poke at the audience. The second instance uses a much stronger profanity, but the entire setup is so cutely self-referential -- I know I'm trying your patience, he seems to say, but, really, it will all be worth it -- that the bit is neither funny nor arresting. I'd like to say that things pick up from here, but the script is loaded with such little pinpricks, all of them lacking in sufficient bite to matter.

Eno is also praised in the program for his "sly wordplay." Here's Exhibit A: "So, a horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, 'Why the long face?' And the horse says, 'I'm dying of AIDS. And I guess I feel a little sorry for myself.' So, the bartender says, 'My God, that's awful. I'm so sorry."' (Brief pause.) "I'm forgetting some part of it. But you get the point, you see the hilarity. It's funny because it's true."

This is a sort of reverse joke in which the punchline is meant to be the absence of one, but again, it fails in just about every possible way. There's the opportunism of using AIDS in an easy grab for shock, followed by the non-conclusion, topped by a bit of editorializing that goes nowhere. Eno tries something similar when he describes his former lover thusly: "Sometimes you meet someone who you know right away is made up of trillions of different cells, and she was one of these." His frequent use of such assertions -- which, given an extra second of thought, fall apart in one's mind -- becomes wearisome. He also indulges in easy-turnaround jokes that oddly echo the likes of Neil Simon: "I'm the type of person you might not hear from for some time, but then, suddenly, one day, bang, you never hear from me again." (There's also the bit where he and his lover awake with cold sores and decide that "love cankers all.") And the action is punctuated with coy attempts at disowning this entire proposition: "If I were you, I'd be sick of this already. I'd feel restless. I'd feel like eating or urinating. I think that covers it. Or maybe I'd feel like taking a long walk on a long pier. Or I'd feel sorry. For me." It was around this point that I began to envision someone taking a long walk off a short pier, and I don't mean me.

Finally, the notes cite the play's "surprising shifts from commonplace to profound." This is the biggest head-scratcher. At times, Thom Pain feels like nothing more than a series of delaying tactics with no discernible endpoint: Thom announces a raffle, then drops it. Twice, he scours the audience for a volunteer, finally choosing one, whom he leaves stranded upstage, with nothing to do, for the last portion of the play. But the closer he comes to making a point, the more one comes to understand the reason for all the textual curlicues. He returns to that little boy -- several times -- describing his beloved dog running toward him, only to be electrocuted by stepping into a pond containing a live power line. A few grisly lines detail the damage, cueing the following: "When did your childhood end? How badly did you get hurt, when you did, when you were this little, when you were this wee little hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words? Isn't it wonderful how we never recover?"

And, asking a member of the audience if he cares to share his larger hopes and getting no response, he adds, "I understand. Don't want to jinx anything. Or have nothing to jinx. Or can't feel hope. Or don't like sharing. Oh, the varieties of experience. Feel free to feel anything. Religious ecstasy, Anarchy, Shivery physical things. Nothing. Blood. Your neighbor. That stranger you married. What possibilities we all have here, ways and means to live and die. Cancer, for example, or depression. Anxiety, Insecurity, Holes in your knowledge, Spots on your lungs, Total oblivion."

In other words, Thom is bedeviled by the old questions Why do we live? Why do we die? Why do we feel pain? Fair enough, but the treatment has to be more sophisticated than that of an all-night college-dorm bull session. And the constant deflections of the script -- the I'm-in-pain-but-not-really-oh-yes-I-am striptease that constitutes Eno's dramatic methodology -- result in dramatic stalemate. It is astonishing that, decades after Beckett and Pinter so fearlessly stared into the mystery of existence, the astigmatic navel-gazing of Thom Pain should be taken so seriously.

This is the second time I've seen the play, and Michael C. Hall, the star of this production, brings much more presence than his predecessor, along with some dry humor and tantalizing intimations of psychological darkness. But he is trapped inside the play's circular structure, its tendency to chase its own tail endlessly, and there is, ultimately, nothing he can do to break free. It's difficult to see what the director, Oliver Butler, brought to the table; he certainly hasn't done much to shape or pace the performance. In any event, Amy Rubin's set design -- an empty stage scattered with tools and building materials, with a hole mysteriously excavated downstage left -- works well enough, and Jen Schriever's lighting achieves some attractively shadowy looks using units place on the deck. Anita Yavich has dressed Hall in a suitably unflattering suit. The main contribution from the sound designer, Lee Kinney, is loud rock music played during the curtain call, which has the effect of drowning out the applause.

Running only about seventy minutes, the play progresses -- or, better, it loops around -- to an ending that leaves the title character pretty much where we found him. There is, at times, a poetic cadence to Eno's words, but they simply fly by, barely making an impact. By the finale, you may be forced to sadly conclude, as did I, that Thom Pain is based on nothing at all. -- David Barbour

(29 November 2018)

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