Like a boxer faking out an opponent, Michael C. Hall as Thom Pain plays tricks on the audience: “Now I think would be a good time for the raffle,” he says at one point, then shortly afterward admits: “There is no raffle…The good news is you didn’t lose.”
But a prizefighter feints to win the match. What’s the point of the 70 minutes of the mild audience abuse, self-conscious digressions and interruptions, deliberately unfunny jokes and funny non-sequiturs, bleak stories, and self-pitying effusions that make up Thom Pain (based on nothing), Will Eno’s one-character play?
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The easy out would be to answer that a good performance at least keeps our attention. Those theatergoers who have seen a previous production are likely to be disappointed by the Off-Broadway revival at the Signature.
To champions of the playwright’s work, most notably former New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, Will Eno is (as Isherwood wrote in his 2005 review of Thom Pain) “the Samuel Beckett of the Jon Stewart generation.” That same year, Isherwood served on the jury that selected the play as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. (John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt won.) This was also around the first time that Paige Evans , now Signature’s new artistic director, saw Thom Pain. “Then as now,” she writes in a program note, “I was struck by Will’s unique voice with its existential humor, sly wordplay and surprising shifts from commonplace to profound.”
I’ll acknowledge that Eno’s theatrical “voice” is unusual, though I’ve reacted differently to it, finding his one foray on Broadway, The Realistic Joneses, thoroughly cryptic and grating. Last year’s Wakey, Wakey felt like a leap forward – almost as esoteric but less tedious and even a bit touching. Yet I struggle to see anything profound in Thom Pain and I’m unclear what “existential humor” even means. Jokes about life and death? One-liners that would make Kierkegaard and Sartre laugh? Observations that are disorienting and full of dread – or dreadful – in a funny way? Perhaps this is a synonym for what Isherwood called the character’s “deadpan hipster banter,” as if this were a good thing.
But I can’t deny Eno’s sly wordplay. After explaining how he and his lover both contracted cold sores, Thom comments: “Love cankers all.” Then he helpfully adds: “A pun.”
Thom is telling the story of a romance, which ended long ago: “I disappeared in her and she, wondering where I went, left.”
It is one of the two stories Thom tries to tell, more or less, in the play. The other, related in the third person but obviously about himself, is made up of sad chapters in the life of a child, who first witnesses the freak death of his dog, and is later attacked by bees.
Thom frequently interrupts his stories, though comes back to them again and again. It is as if, in undermining the conventions of storytelling, the playwright is offering us a metaphor for the difficulties of getting through life. And Thom’s failure to find meaning or make satisfying connections in his life is represented by his inability to communicate straightforwardly with the audience.
“Maybe this’ll explain,” he says near the end, taking out an old letter, but after reading it to himself, says “Nope.”
For Thom’s jousts and jabs to feel like something more than random cleverness and intermittent entertainment, the actor must somehow show us an interior life that’s seething, longing, striving, bursting with sadness and anger and resentments and pain that he’s trying to mask.
One might suppose that such seething could come easily to Michael C. Hall, who played a serial killer on cable TV for eight seasons. But Dexter was a doll (the series depicting his murders as morally justified and him as well-meaning.) There is less menace than master of ceremonies in Hall’s portrayal of Pain. Amy Rubin’s overly large set reinforces that impression, even though the nearly empty space is raw, as if under construction or under repair (there’s even a sign at the entrance saying “Pardon our appearance.”) When Hall’s Thom describes himself as a “trying man in a wordy body,” we don’t really buy it. When he asks, “Does it scare you? Being face to face with the modern mind?” your answer might be: If only.
Thom Pain (based on nothing) is on stage at the Signature Center (480 W 42nd St, just east of 10th Avenue,New York, NY 10036) through December 9, 2018. Tickets and details —
Thom Pain (based on nothing) Written by Will Eno, directed by Oliver Butler, set design by Amy Rubin, costume design by Anita Yavich, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Lee Kinney. Featuring Michael C. Hall. Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.