By Will Eno; Directed by Oliver Butler
Off Broadway, Solo Show Revival
Runs through 12.9.18
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street
by Lexi Orphanos on 11.11.18
Michael C. Hall in Thom Pain (based on nothing). Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: Thom Pain (based on nothing) smartly makes a simple play into a star vehicle for the kind of in-your-face theatre that should be seen more often.
In an interview on Signature Theatre's website, director Oliver Butler describes Will Eno’s plays: “Will’s work is just very aware—I think—of the absurdity of our existence, the absurdity of theatre, while still loving what theatre can be.” Butler puts concisely the feeling audiences will encounter in the 70 minutes spent at Thom Pain (based on nothing).
Makeshift signs hung near the entrance to the Diamond Theatre (previously home to Be More Chill) beg the audience to “pardon our appearance!” Nets of debris hang from the ceiling, a gaping hole occupies all of downstage left, massive ladders lay slumped on their sides, with dust and pebbles coughed out from tarps; this is not the type of theatrical “spectacle” we’re used to grappling with. Luckily, the ever-handsome and mildly-sadistic Thom Pain (Michael C. Hall, of Dexter and The Crown) soon enters to save the day…in complete darkness.
After several lines of unseen monologue, the lights flick on in a wash, and the audience can rest easy. Throughout the piece, Thom maps key life moments, regrets, and urges with the candor of a businessman trying therapy at his wife’s behest. The 70 minutes do not achieve great narrative heights, but this is intentional. When his time with the crowd is up, Thom voices a humble, Puck-like plea to his audience: "I know this wasn’t much, but let it be enough." Thom Pain is wonderfully self-aware of its ironic contradictions: the whole point is that the theatre is in shambles, there is no show to present, but this "non-theatre" can still be a rewarding night at the theatre.
Playwright Will Eno has been compared to Samuel Beckett for zeroing in on "the simple human stuff," rejecting the flashiness often applied to artists and their work. While not uncommon in the downtown theatre scene, casting a multimedia star in a high-profile production brings new resonance to such a cynical, self-aware piece. It poses questions to break these theatrical foundations: isn’t it odd that we’re too afraid to volunteer to stand on stage? It’s just an elevated, better lit part of the room, after all. Thom Pain (based on nothing) thus appears to directly mock the pomp of theatre and highly praised actors. Will Eno’s work makes the audience vital to the performance, and in doing so makes the audience feel necessary, like a peer to the actor.
Typically, a play is devised to make the audience “feel” a type of way, and be left with some “perspective.” However, Thom Pain completely strays from the comfort of familiar dramatic elements like character or plot or climax: the show is quite literally based on nothing. Theatrical devices—a raffle, an audience volunteer, even a riveting soliloquy—are set up, then abandoned entirely. To do all this and literally say “fuck you” to the audience, while still maintaining their respect and attention, is flooring to witness. While unsuspecting audience members might get offended, or be upset to have spent money to have Dexter swear at them, this revival underlines how, even fourteen years on, there are so many aspects of Will Eno’s play that the theatre world at large is just beginning to scratch the surface of.
(Thom Pain (based on nothing) plays at Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, through December 9, 2018. The running time is 70 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30, Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 2; no evening performances 11/21, 11/22, and 12/1, additional 7:30 performances 11/25, 12/2, and 12/9. No performances 12/3-12/6. Tickets are $35 through 11/25; $45-$65 from 11/27 on, and are available at signaturetheatre.org or by calling 212-244-7529.)
Thom Pain (based on nothing) is by Will Eno. Directed by Oliver Butler. Scenic Design by Amy Rubin. Costume Design by Anita Yavich. Lighting Design by Jen Schriever. Sound Design by Lee Kinney. Production Stage Manager is Charles M. Turner III.
The cast is Michael C. Hall.