Thom Pain (Based on Nothing)
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
January 27, 2005
Will Eno describes his new play Thom Pain (based on nothing) as “a monologue for theatre” and I am reticent to embellish upon that—to too-definitively decide what it is “really about.”
Thom Pain is a spare play that gives the gift of space: not only is it a one-performer piece that takes place on an almost bare stage, but the audience is given just enough information so that we may individually contextualize it for ourselves. That is, where verbiage is concerned, neither the author nor the production says too much. It is a generous and brave thing to allow the audience a certain autonomy, a chance to think and feel, to be a part of the creative process (for Thom Pain is a play that needs its audience’s minds the way its more affluent, spectacular Broadway cousins need their audience’s money).
Our unreliable narrator (played with haunting ease by James Urbaniak) makes his esoteric way through a few tales of dubious autobiographicality, punctuated by offers to perform conventional stage acts (from magic tricks to ticket lotteries and audience participation) that are reneged as swiftly as they are proposed. We quickly understand that we are not charged with the task of putting bits of information together to understand this person’s life; but rather our challenge is to stay present, enduring the paradoxes and pranks, so we may, ultimately, understand something new about our own.
Eno’s words, phrases and tropes are not epochal, nor are they self-consciously banal. They are familiar, but proffered in a way that is constantly contradictory to our expectations. Beckett is certainly among his literary ancestors, though Eno has more of a need to impress, a kind of optimism in the way he gently tortures his audience. And he and director Hal Brooks could not have chosen a blither torturer than Urbaniak, who's got the whole audience’s attention in the cool palm of his fisted hand.
It is difficult for me not to conclude that this is a meditation on consciousness—it is, after all, pain, more so even than pleasure, that keeps us from getting too far adrift from our bodies (that is, from the present moment). However, the play is not asking us to make sense of it, but to make use of it: to be tantalized for a bit by this stranger who introduces all sorts of possibilities.
The last lines are “I know this wasn’t much, but let it be enough…. Isn’t it great to be alive?” Thom Pain is the rare show that prepares us to answer that question.