It’s been fourteen years since Thom Pain — a “cold, grave, somewhat angular person … a wounded, stray-dog type, but with an odd intellectual aspect, perhaps even a little frail … charismatic … seductive … unpredictable … unknowable” — first walked onto a stage and, within a year, turned his creator, the playwright Will Eno, into a Pulitzer finalist. In the Times, Charles Isherwood raved over the monologue play named for its not-so-odd oddball — a man who is (in his own words) “just like you, or, is you, or he isn’t and doesn’t like you”: Thom Pain (based on nothing) was “stand-up existentialism” that would leave you “breathless with exhilaration,” “speechless,” “in stitches,” and “in a puddle of tears.” Eno was “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” I was a college freshman, obsessed with Shakespeare and experimental theater and Peter Barnes. I wouldn’t cross paths with Eno’s plays for years yet, and in the case of his career-making Thom Pain, that intersection wouldn’t come in full until a few nights ago.
And now I’m frustrated. When Signature Theatre revives older work by its legacy playwrights, it can often feel like the plays themselves are implicitly unassailable — they are these writers’ “signature” plays, after all. As audience members we might have thoughts about the new productions (Who’s directing? Who’s playing this well-known role now? Here, the answers are Oliver Butler and Michael C. Hall), but the plays themselves are on a bit of a pedestal. They’re worth revisiting in the first place because we’ve decided that they belong to the modern theatrical canon. Well, canon or not, faced with Eno’s play now, I found myself recoiling from its aggressive flippancy. There’s something brittle and deceptive about Thom Pain’s systemic self-deprecation — on the surface it says, “I know nothing, I’m a minuscule speck in the universe, isn’t this whole life thing hard and awesome?” But under its breath it says, “I’m pretty sure your experience of the world is just like mine.” It gropes tentatively, and I believe sincerely, after compassion and beauty, but it cuts itself off at the knees over and over again with its paralyzing fear of commitment — to earnestness, to theatricality, to anything bigger than the self in pain. The play repeatedly retreats into the same kind of affected ironic nihilism that the boys in my high-school English class thought was so totally cool — and so totally unique to them — after reading Camus for the first time. It wants to connect, and to be about connection, but it also wants to say “go fuck yourselves” (and it does). Thom Pain is not Beckett. Its heart is still about three sizes too small and its ego is bigger than it thinks.
The pleasure of the production is watching Hall in moments of simple, full presence. Thom, according to Eno, “is trying to tell his Life Story and is constantly being interrupted by the fact that he’s alive.” With its intentional digressiveness, its repetitions and silences and stutter-step rhythms, the play needs an actor with a semblance of normality — even of blandness — who commands our attention with a subtle vice grip. Hall, with his square jaw and subcutaneous sense of menace, can do that. He’s like the dependable dad from a fifties sitcom who might actually be (oh, right) a serial killer. He’s also alive to the space that he’s in. Though I was unmoved by certain moments in the script that are contrived to look spontaneous (as when a planted audience member leaves and Thom, to some shocked giggles, snaps, “Au revoir, cunt”), I was struck when Hall stopped in his tracks to watch a speck of dust float down from the theater ceiling. That’s not in the play, but it’s everything the play wants to be about, in a single moment of honest attention from from an actor who’s actually in the room.
The problem is that what Thom Pain wants to be and what the play is are two different things. There are three and a half pages of notes for the actor playing Thom at the end of the script — full of sincere directions to “honor the largeness, the complicatedness, of human beings” — and the show’s Wikipedia page features a note from the playwright in which he offers adjustments to the play’s description. Thom’s monologue, Eno writes, is only “rambling” because it’s “painstakingly constructed to create the effect of humanness in action.” It’s “a real-time display of consciousness and self-consciousness that [asks] major questions about human life and how we define it, narrate it, value it, and ultimately live it.” Eno has talked about the Beckett influence, citing that playwright’s essential humanity, especially the afflicted, tyrannical Hamm’s line from Endgame: “Get out of here and love one another.” It’s clear from everything he says about his play that he wants it to be generous, noble even — to be rich with both real revulsion and real wonder at the world and to find the bravery inside everyday agonizing human befuddlement.
But I only know all this because interviews, author’s notes, and Wikipedia have told me it’s so. Meanwhile, the actual experience of sitting through Thom Pain feels like watching someone blow up one tiny, feeble balloon after another and then contemptuously pop them all, one by one. We’re spending time with someone who’s attracted by the kind of gentle, unsentimental exaltation of the mundane exemplified by writers like Thornton Wilder (Eno’s Middletown is an homage to Our Town), but who’s equally embarrassed by that attraction, still archly hip and afraid of his own stirrings of sincerity.
All of this is in the play — Thom begins by dancing around the dictionary definition of “fear” — but the character’s self-awareness ultimately makes him more solipsistic, not less so. When he looks out at the world, he sees a collection of reflections, morose and beset, staring back at him. He wants to love us, but he kind of hates us, because that’s how he feels about himself. “What a nice crowd,” he says flatly, “I see no difference, really. In a world filled with difference, sickening disheartening difference, I see none. Between the you and the me. You all seem so wonderful and I seem so wonderful … I see no separation … The thought of you disgusts me so much. The thought of you doesn’t disgust me that much … The truth? I don’t care either way. That’s not true. I do care, either way.” This is the play’s continual pattern: Offer and withhold, venture and retreat, expose and conceal. We get told to “go fuck ourselves” at the (anti-)climax of a passage of mounting lyricism, in which Thom tells us to “picture every living person as a member of a violin section … Picture a bird settling on a branch … Feel the world inhale. Picture the readiness, the stillness, the virtuosity … Picture ash blowing across a newly-blue sky … ” After popping this particular balloon, Thom can barely rouse himself into continuing: “Picture whatever you want. You’re free, at least to this little extent, yes? Who knows. Not me.”
Perhaps there’s something about the lurking sense of threat that Hall possesses — along with the alpha vibe he projects even underneath Thom’s fits and starts — that infuses the text with disdain. But the coolness, the “I couldn’t care less but really I’m hurt and scared” faux-losophizing, is also inherent in the play itself. There’s a curt, almost nasty streak to the text. Eno’s notes say Thom should be “cruel, perhaps, but not mean,” but the distinction is a fine one. It’s one thing to know it exists and another to build that difference into the fabric of your play. Thom is constantly appealing to our sympathy while simultaneously resorting to snide escape hatches: “If I were you, I’d be sick of this already” he tells us at one point, then later, drily, “You really are very forgiving.” We’re encouraged to “feel free to feel anything” — though I’m not sure either character or author are aiming for the kind of aggravated alienation I felt from this emotional adolescent in man’s clothing. The great tragedies of Thom’s life are the (admittedly grisly) death of his boyhood dog and, in adulthood, a painful break-up. I don’t want to be cruel, to dismiss the scale or weight of the character’s suffering, but that’s the kind of gaze that sees the entire world in its own navel.
“Please just don’t say that you were out somewhere watching someone being clever,” Thom entreats of us about halfway through the show. “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.” It’s true — the character and the play are trying, in, as the character implies, both senses of the word. I’m not without feeling for their efforts, but I’m also not without feelings about their methods. Wandering across Amy Rubin’s set, which not only strips the theater bare but tears out a corner of the stage and adds work-zone paraphernalia as if the place is under construction (there’s even a handwritten sign at the entrance: “Please excuse our mess”), Hall, in his best, most vulnerable moments seems like an unfinished thing in an unfinished space — scarce half made up and sent before his time into this breathing world. Yet his endless cycle of reaching and running starts to feel self-defeating in ways that go past intention. Yes, Thom Pain is about anxiety and failure—“I did everything in fear,” Thom admits—but it’s also addicted to a coldness, a nonchalance that too often exhibits the very same fear it would like to examine. Perhaps I’ve known too many men like Thom, men inclined to substitute self-awareness for real emotional labor. I’ve felt for them, and I feel for Eno’s poor Thom too, but there are limits to sympathy when its object, for all his trying, still possesses very limited courage.
Thom Pain (based on nothing) is at the Signature Theatre Company through December 9.