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Thom Pain (based on nothing)

  • Theater, Comedy
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Thom Paine
Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw 

When Will Eno’s elliptical, existential monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing) became a downtown hit in 2005, it had been pared down almost to nothingness. All the effects were in actor James Urbaniak's body: the special Muppet tilt to his head, the dry humor of his voice, the odd menace in the way his arms hung just a little too loose. For those who saw it, it was impossible to forget yet weirdly hard to remember. Eno’s text is a wonderfully light thing—a butterfly’s erratic passage through a man’s mind as he tries to narrate both his past (the death of his boyhood dog, a bee attack, a love gone forever) and the constant, irritating demands of the theatrical present. “Can you picture anything without it falling apart?” the man/metaphor at its center asks us, accusingly. Eno so exactly reflects a scattered self to us that he amplifies the scattering. When you try to recall Thom Pain, your thinking can't penetrate it; it's like trying to shine headlights into a blizzard.

Thom Pain has to fight a little too hard to be heard in the Pershing Square Signature Center's bigger theater, where director Oliver Butler has given it a very handsome and polished revival. Michael C. Hall performs Eno’s script with immense charm (if not danger), but it’s a piece that requires the intimacy of a mind moving very close to yours. You can almost see the lightning leaping between Hall and the first four rows, but he has to cover such a huge space and so many people that the effect is necessarily intermittent. Designer Amy Rubin elaborately “undresses” the stage, littering it with detritus, putting billowing sheets of plastic overhead, stacking ladders against the back wall. There’s also a grave hacked into the deck, which seems like too literal an image for this odd, dancing text. Surely Thom Pain would never be backed into a bang-on-the-nose metaphor like that? The guy we know is always slipping away, using anything to hand—puns, direct attack, the threat of audience participation—to dodge any obvious reading. “Picture ash blowing across a newly blue sky,” he says, making us ponder death and disaster and the vulnerability of innocents. Got it, we think, settling comfortably into our seats; this is a play with a message. “Now,” he says briskly, “go fuck yourselves.” It’s the kind of slap that wakes you right up, so be sure to sit in front—where it can hit you.

Signature Theatre (Off Broadway). By Will Eno. Directed by Oliver Butler. With Michael C. Hall. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission. 

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Written by
Helen Shaw


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