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Review: ‘Thom Pain’ from Second Thought Theatre

by Jerome Weeks 20 Jan 2011 7:17 AM

Will Eno’s ‘Thom Pain’ was a Pulitzer finalist. It deserves the honor – as exasperating as the brilliant, sardonic solo can be.

Will Eno from shutterstock.com

Second Thought Theatre has opened its seventh season with the monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing) by Will Eno. Thom Pain was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and in his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says it deserves the honor — as exasperating as the play can be for some people.

  • KERA Radio review:

Steven Walters in ‘Thom Pain’

In Will Eno’s brilliant, abrasive, comic solo, Thom Pain (based on nothing), the title character — the only character — tries to convey two apparently disconnected stories: the death of a boy’s dog and Pain’s own loss of a girlfriend. The play is not absurdist. Nothing absurd happens in it, ordinary cause-and-effect applies, no one is turned into a rhinoceros. In fact, in its own way, it’s perfectly logical. Pain tries to explain himself, but interrupts his narratives with hilarious asides, dud jokes, admissions that his stories are going nowhere. And all of this is mixed in with interludes of aggressively pointless audience participation: “Now I think it’s time for the raffle!

Think of it as a stand-up routine that self-destructs as it goes along. Or the exhaustion of all theatrical and narrative techniques in the search for … something.  Pain’s eccentric, conversational style — his stating and denying, groping and failing and cracking wise — is what makes Eno’s hour-long solo piece unique, a small marvel of sardonic theater and damaged humanity. It’s also what makes it maddening for some people. Pain is precise in what he says — precise language is all he has — even as he fails to get things right, even as he knows he’ll miss the mark. Pain will never quite find Meaning and Worthwhile Purpose in His Life.

But then, neither will most of us.

Still, he tries. Life is the great disappointment. Yet even this failed thing has its consolations.

Pain: “It’s sad, isn’t it? This dead horse of a life that we beat all the wilder, all the harder, the deader it gets? … On the other hand, there are some really nice shops in the area.”

All of which is why critics (me and the NYTimes‘ Charles Isherwood, for starters) have compared Pain to the characters in Samuel Beckett’s novels, particularly The Unnameable, with its famous ending, “You can’t go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”  This is Pain:

“Do me a favor. If you have a home, when you’re home, later, avoiding your family, staring at the dog, and they ask you where you’ve been, please just don’t say that you were out somewhere watching someone being clever, watching some smart-mouth nobody working himself into some dumb-ass frenzy. Please say instead . . .  that you saw someone who was trying. I choose the word with care. I’m trying. A trying man. A feeling thing, in a wordy body. Poor Thom’s a-trying.”

He certainly is trying hard in Steven Walters’ performance in Second Thought Theatre’s production. Walters is a very different performer from James Urbaniak, who premiered the play off-Broadway in 2005. Urbaniak probably remains best-known for his various appearances on TV series (Sex and the City). But I prefer his performances as Thom Pain and the cartoonist R. Crumb in American Splendor. Both roles suit his delivery: geeky and deadpan-bitter but with a dash of wild whimsy.

As Thom Pain, Walters is far more urgent, more demonstrative, more ingratiating. He’s like a disillusioned motivational speaker, an insult comic who’s gone a little introspective. But he’ll work this audience, dammit, get us to pay attention to him, to his loss.

Walters cares. His is a sweaty, heartfelt performance, and it’s terrific, naked one moment, stone-faced-funny the next. Walters pounds his chest in pain (“She hurt me. I bled in the night. I hurt her”), even as he drags an audience member up for what he’s promised will be something awkward and embarrassing.

And then he does nothing. He teases him gently but thanks him sincerely, perhaps recognizing a fellow wounded creature. And then he lets him go.

Much as he does with the rest of us.

“I have to go. You have to go. Maybe someone is waiting. Please, God, let there be someone waiting … . I know this wasn’t much. But let it be enough.”

It surely is.

For now.