Anatomy of Abandonment
By Caridad Svich
Thom Pain (based on nothing)
By Will Eno
103 E. 15th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200
Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) opened
in February 2005 at the DR2 Theater off of Union Square, starring downtown
theater and indie film star James Urbaniak under Hal Brooks's direction.
In a theater scene that has lately been dominated by revivals, the lightest
of upper-middle-class comedies, and a few Big Idea-laden history plays,
Thom Pain is a resolutely ahistorical, deeply astringent and
purposefully odd solo piece. It has nevertheless sustained an open run
Off-Broadway at a time when the harsh economics of theater have forced
many a promising show to close, and it has even weathered the precarious
challenge of changing solo actors (T. Ryder Smith replaced James Urbaniak
on September 5th). What is it about this deceptively slim text that
has continued to defy critical description while garnering praise and
Thom Pain opens with a figure in darkness.
A cigarette is lit, put out and lit again. Stage light comes up in due
course. Yet Thom will remain throughout the evening very much in the
dark to us (and to himself), alternately inaccessible and transparent
as air. Barely recovering from an intense love affair, Pain exhibits
all the snarling, venomous badinage of a spurned lover, and all the
painfully (pun intended) myopic isolation that comes from being deserted,
cast off, and abandoned to the unclear whims of a chaotic, loveless
universe. Pain, the insignificant schmo, is caught in a Sisyphean routine
of wanting greatness in his life and knowing it can never be achieved,
of wanting to tell a profound story but getting waylaid by distractions
and minor details that only make him stop and not want to tell anymore.
I disappeared in her and she, wondering where
I went, left. It's not clear what happened exactly. So you just try
Do you like magic? I do. I think. It's fairly
ambivalent, this love of mine.
Once a moth was flying around my room. I was
afraid. A yucky flapping moth. And me. It all had some effect, I'm
sure. Thank you very much. End of rumination.
A fragment of a fragment, a self-described nobody,
Pain is a figure easily ridiculed and by the same token, reviled. Similar
to other classically ascetic American characters, like Melville's Bartleby
the Scrivener -- characters that go against the ingrained U.S. archetypes
of the Yankee/cowboy and the dandy -- Pain is insular and contemptuous
of others, a loner without the requisite high Romantic streak of yearning
and melancholy. Pleasure is almost anathema to this nobody among nobodies,
this loser slacker drifting through the ardent episodes of his bored
little life. He is filled with rage, yet too self-aware to think it
can be put to any good use. He is a comedian playing to an audience
that he will never "kill," in comic parlance. In the eternally (metaphorically)
bare music-hall, Pain delivers his schtick (as Osborne's Archie knowingly
did in The Entertainer) to a laugh he will cut short with a
He holds the handkerchief up.
Behold. Consider. Use your head and imagine
this is a brain. Or, the mind. There it is, in the skull of a boy
still in the womb, battleship gray and growing, folding over itself,
turning, as he kicks his way into the world. … Such a feeling life,
such sensation, yes? Then pile the words on top. And watch them seep
down. Think of it. The brain and the mind. All that up there. Married,
happily or not. Imagine.
Or just think about snot. Imagine that this
is a handkerchief. And that I just blew my nose into it.
But surprisingly -- and this is Eno's sly brilliance
as a writer -- the hate-filled Pain begins to ingratiate himself just
a little to his audience. His ambiguous relationship to the purity and
miracle of life's joys sparks through his vitriolic stand-up rant/sermon
and catches even him by surprise. Moving slightly past the distress
of being left by his lover, Pain does not entirely embrace life by play's
end. A wary trust, though, is won by his simply trying to sort out his
non-story, and by offering it to others in the intimate, exposing confines
of a theater.
Maybe someone is waiting. Please be someone
waiting. I'm done with this. Important things will happen, now. I
promise. … I know this wasn't much, but let it be enough. Do. Boo.
Isn't it great to be alive?
It would be misleading, of course, to say that
Thom Pain (based on nothing) is a cozy life-affirming treat,
or that its passage from dark to darkish light is conventionally drawn.
Eno is too sardonic a writer, too aware of life's charade, to aim higher.
In this sense, he is clearly in the post post-modernist line of novelists
like Dave Eggers: a non-believing believer who wishes for something
grand but cannot fully express it because grand schemes don't amount
to much anymore. It's best to simply disappear in a climate riddled
with fear: to be the non-musical "Mr. Cellophane." However, Pain can't
stop trying, in spite of himself.
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.
Like Beckett's Molloy, Thom Pain lives in a strange,
mysterious world where the precision of language is the only tool left
to describe life's torment. It is apropos, then, that Eno's voice as
a writer, especially in this play, has connected with his audiences
so strongly. In this piece, Pain is an unflattering reflection of the
contemporary spirit: alone, almost virtual in appearance (barely there),
alternately retreating and abrasive in manner, distrustful, riddled
with fear, and aware that he is merely a toy in the machinations of
a random, violent world. Effectively similar to the lead role in Mike
Leigh's classic 1990s film Naked, played to staggering, heartbreaking
perfection by David Thewlis, Pain is a Hamlet bereft of a tragedy to
contain him. There is no vengeance here, no kingdom to be won and no
ghosts calling for remembrance: only loneliness and more loneliness,
and stunted isolation. Whereas Leigh in his film charted an anatomy
of the tragic in the contemporary individual (indeed, for Leigh, the
depth and charge of classical tragedy is possible in the isolated urban
landscape), Eno charts the anatomy of abandonment.
Who am I, now, and what difference does it
make? … She hurt me. I bled in the night. I hurt her. I wasn't anywhere.
Then I was in love. Now I'm here. … I did everything in fear. What
was I so afraid of? I had promise. I don't have anything anymore.
Depth is hinted at but surface keeps claiming
Pain, as surface and the simulation of the real, the mythic presence
of reality, has captured many in the modern predicament. Post-Baudrillard's
theories, Pain is a figure virtualized and almost incapable of keeping
a tangible object or storyline in view. The breakdown of breaking down
is all this abandoned non-prophet can call his own. Eno pokes fun at
the elemental state of his anti-hero, but also keeps trying to connect
him to the natural world, the world he has abandoned, in effect, and
from whose eco-system he has been cut off. The disembodied life that
Pain lives, and that Eno posits many of us live, has stripped him/us
of not only experience but also the ability to connect experiences and
ideas to each other. Agonizing over his idealized lover, Pain, by virtue
of who he is and the specifically Anglo-American, vaguely New England
landscape from which he has been drawn, can only see microscopically.
The bigger picture eludes him. The bite-size samples of his admittedly
sorry little life are all he can barely hold onto. He is like an X-ray
negative. And his sort of pain, which U.S. culture is addicted to in
a media driven by tabloid tales of trauma and distress, is what we want
more than anything. Even if it is "petty" pain.
That audiences will stick it out for a little
over an hour with this figure in the dark is testament to Eno's captivating,
enigmatic dramatic prose and T. Ryder Smith's oddly bracing, broken
charm and expert musicality as a performer. Smith's darkly quirky, wry
persona is both warmer and more mysterious than Urbaniak, who played
(also brilliantly) a dry, chilly, irony-laden sad-sack. The drifting,
elusive non-story of Thom Pain is now less stand-up than the shaky ruminations
of a distraught abandoned lover. Indeed, revisiting Eno's remarkable
play illuminates the love-hate relationship Pain has with himself and
the world. Beneath a veil of anonymity, Pain questions civilization
and the landscape in which humans pattern their lives. Alert to culture's
unending ambiguity, Pain refuses answers. It is our gain that Eno has
invented such a misanthropic figure for our times.