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If Samuel Beckett and James Joyce had a literary love child, it would be Will Eno’s Thom Pain (Based on Nothing).
This 2004 solo play has been thrilling and bedeviling audiences since its 2005 off-Broadway debut, which starred James Urbaniak and garnered critical raves, going on to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The piece is best described as an existential stand-up routine, delivered by a man riffing on life’s disappointments and absurdities in alternately comic and bitter tones.
The 70-minute monologue never really coheres into a discernible storyline, which will certainly prove frustrating for those looking for a linear narrative. But the play’s deliciously clever wordplay and theatrical inventiveness provide myriad rewards for the more open-minded. Signature Theatre’s current off-Broadway revival, directed by Oliver Butler and starring Michael C. Hall, particularly highlights the work’s strengths, thanks to the actor’s formidable charisma and charm.
Performed in a theater made to look like it’s under construction with its littering of tarps, ladders and tools, the piece begins in total darkness. We hear the voice of the title character, who never tells us his name, addressing us warmly. “How wonderful to see you all,” he says, the joke being, of course, that no one can see anyone in the blackness.
When finally revealed, the man, wearing a sharply pressed black suit, proceeds to engage us, if “engage” is the word, in a sort of conversation, except that despite his frequent questions he never gives us a chance to respond. His rambling, stream-of-consciousness monologue is marked by frequent non sequiturs, as if he can’t quite figure out what direction he wants his story to take.
He seems to take pleasure in teasing us. He announces that there will be a surprise raffle based on our ticket stubs, but almost immediately recants. “There is no raffle,” he says. “Who said there was going to be a raffle? The good news is, you didn’t lose.”
A few narrative threads can be discerned, including a traumatic event from his childhood and a failed relationship with a woman. “Except for all our unfixable problems, everything was perfect,” he observes. At several points he asks for a volunteer, or “conscript,” from the audience, acknowledging the discomfort he must be causing as the house lights go up and he prowls through the aisles, never stopping talking.
It’s all very dense and requires intense concentration, and you may find your mind wandering at times. But it doesn’t take long for it to spring back to attention, thanks to the brilliantly inventive language and such memorable phraseology as when the man bemoans “this dead horse of a life we beat.”
Alternately emanating the character’s rueful acceptance and a bitterness seemingly borne of self-loathing, Hall is mesmerizing throughout. (The actor previously collaborated with the playwright on the 2014 Broadway production of Eno’s The Realistic Joneses.) He makes the piece accessible and engaging, laying himself bare and connecting with the audience in ways both friendly and subtly hostile; he’s always (and surprisingly) relatable. At times he addresses audience members directly, staring intently at them as he asks rhetorical questions, and it’s difficult to resist the impulse to answer back.
Butler’s unobtrusive but perfectly calibrated staging, Jen Schriever’s lighting and Lee Kinney’s sound design make subtle but essential contributions. Thom Pain may not be for all tastes, but adventurous theatergoers are unlikely ever to experience it in a more riveting presentation.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Michael C. Hall
Playwright Will Eno
Director: Oliver Butler
Set designer: Amy Rubin
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Sound designer: Lee Kinney
Presented by Signature Theatre
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