Until 10 days ago, I’d only seen two of Will Eno’s plays, The Open House in 2014 and Wakey, Wakey in 2017. (Reports on those performances are posted on Rick On Theater on 16 March 2014 and 24 March 2017, respectively.) They were both quirky, interesting, surprising, and fun, and I put Eno on my list of writers on whom to keep tabs. So when I saw that a revival of the 53-year-old playwright’s break-out play, Thom Pain (based on nothing), was to be part of the Signature Theatre Company’s 2018-2019 season, I included it among my subscription selections. Diana, my usual theater companion (and my STC subscription partner) met at the Pershing Square Signature Center in Theatre Row on Friday night, 16 November, for the 7:30 performance in the Irene Diamond Stage of the intermissionless, 70-minute, one-man show.
The presentation is part of this season’s Legacy Program at Signature, which the theater bills as “a homecoming for past Playwrights-in-Residence,” showcasing premières of new works or revivals of older plays by writers who have had Residency 1 or Residency 5 seasons previously. (Eno, the first “graduate” of Signature’s Residency 5 program, was a resident writer from 2012 to 2017. The two plays I saw were presented during that tenure.) The current revival of Thom Pain, directed by Oliver Butler (who also staged Open House) and starring Michael C. Hall (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Realistic Joneses; he’s probably best recognized for his eight seasons as the title character, the serial killer in Showtime’s Dexter) began previews on 23 October 2018 and opened on 11 November; it’s currently scheduled to close on 9 December (after two extensions from 25 November and 2 December).
The world première of Thom Pain (based on nothing), after a Launch Pad reading at the Soho Theatre in London, was at the Pleasance Courtyard at the Edinburgh Festival from 24 to 30 August 2004; the Soho Theatre Company production, directed by Hal Brooks with James Urbaniak as Thom Pain, won the First Fringe Award at the festival. The production returned to London and the Soho Theatre for a regular run from 3 to 24 September 2004. Thom Pain’s New York and U.S. première was at the Off-Broadway DR2 Theatre in Union Square from 1 February to 4 September 2005; Urbaniak was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance for the production and Charles Isherwood proclaimed Eno in the New York Times as “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” Thom Pain (based on nothing) was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Since then, there have been many revivals around the U.S. (Seattle Repertory Theatre; Dallas Theater Center; Theatre Wit of Chicago; Austin, Texas’s Hyde Park Theatre; Actor’s Express in Atlanta, and others) and the world (Finland, France, Israel, Holland, Norway, Portugal, China, Mexico, Germany, and more); the script has been translated into over a dozen languages. The current STC revival is the first in New York City since the 2005 début. A filmed adaptation of Geffen Playhouse’s production of Thom Pain (based on nothing) starring Rainn Wilson (and also directed by Oliver Butler) was aired on the streaming service BroadwayHD in January 2018. (The text of the monodrama is published by Oberon Books [as Thom Pain (based on nothing): Published with Other Monologues for Theatre, 2004], the Dramatists Play Service , and the Theatre Communications Group [as Thom Pain (based on nothing): With Other Monologues for Theatre, 2018].)
I included a brief biography of Will Eno, along with a discussion of his dramaturgy, in my report on The Open House, noted earlier, but to bring it up to 2018, his play The Realistic Joneses was presented on Broadway in 2014, receiving a Drama Desk Special Award; it was named Best Play on Broadway by USA Today and best American play of 2014 by the New York edition of The Guardian. The Open House won the Obie Award for Playwriting for its 2014 production at the Signature Theatre Company and the 2014 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play; the cast and Eno all won Drama Desk Award Special Awards for the production as well. The citation, which was for both the Off-Broadway Open House and Broadway’s Realistic Joneses, read: "For two extraordinary casts and one impressively inventive playwright.” Last June, New York Times theater writers Ben Brantley and Jesse Green included The Realistic Joneses in their list of “the best 25 of the last 25 years.” Of Eno’s writing, Brantley and Green wrote:
A philosopher and a wisecracker, Mr. Eno is a playwright who favors ideas over plot. He also makes space for the language that gets those ideas across, the crackle of a quip, the snap of an upturned cliché.
At home, Eno and his wife, actress Maria Dizzia, now have a four-year-old daughter, Albertine.
There’s no plot per se to Thom Pain (based on nothing)—which began as a character study of American revolutionary Thomas Paine (1737-1809), then Eno’s concept shifted when he realized his own “present and past pains” were the better vehicle for his message. Even an event-by-event description of the 70-minute play would be longer than the performance.
It’s a monologue that might be called stand-up Existentialism (a label coined by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times). Variously described as a “Beckettian monologue of a tortured soul,” “a combination of a Samuel Beckett-like meditation on the absurdist vicissitudes of life and a caustic monologue by one of those lesser late-night talk-show hosts,” “a mixture of a Shakespeare comedy and a (Samuel) Beckett piece,” “a stand-up routine that self-destructs as it goes along,” “a hybrid of stand-up com[edy], motivational speak[ing] and storytell[ing],” and “a Rorschach test . . . that never clarifies the point,” the play wanders with apparent aimlessness (but carefully planned by Eno) from subject to subject like a mental pinball. An Absurdist mental pinball. Describing the work, the playwright says: “Thom Pain is trying to tell his life story and gets interrupted by the fact that he’s alive.”
Eno has added a note on the Wikipedia page for Thom Pain that explains that it
is painstakingly constructed to create the effect of humanness in action . . . . Because of his own defects, strengths, anxieties, and personality, he finds himself asking major questions about human life and how we define it, narrate it, value it, and ultimately live it.
In a program note for the Queensland Theatre Company (South Brisbane, Australia) production of the play, the playwright dismissed the notion of that Thom Pain is a playwriting experiment. He said: “I guess I just think of it as a play. Or, to be honest, more of a ‘thing’, I guess . . . I don't know.’"
The bare Diamond Stage is full of junk—not trash or garbage, but odd pieces of furniture, drop cloths, ladders, plastic sheeting on the wall, protective netting on the ceiling, and other odds-and-ends, as if it were a storage space for the detritus, discards, and left-overs of life. It might be a basement somewhere (there are no windows) or an abandoned building. It might be the theater itself, under reconstruction but the work has been halted. Up right is a door to another room inside which is more stuff. (The costumes and sets were designed by Anita Yavich and Amy Rubin; Jen Schriever's lighting leaves pockets of dark into and out of which Pain moves.) The lights go to black.
Pain (Hall), the play’s sole character, enters in the darkness—we can hear his shuffling footsteps—and after some preliminary feints, he asks, “Do you need to see me to hear me?” adding “If so, sorry. Not yet.” Then the lights go on and Hall’s standing down rightish, dressed in dark suit, white shirt, and dark tie. He wears glasses which he’s cleaning with a handkerchief.
Eventually Pain begins to tell the audience a story about a little boy writing in a puddle with a violin bow. The story will reappear, but at the end of the introduction, Pain tells the spectators to go fuck themselves. Hall’s remoteness makes it clear that the audience’s wishes are not Pain’s concern.
The tale of the little disabled boy whose dog is electrocuted in a puddle is just one of many bleak images Pain, a man who himself has suffered pain, imparts to his viewers as he muses about the awfulness of existence: “You just try to keep on living but it all seems so useless,” and “Maybe I was just born with a headache.”
Then he breaks into questions about life (“I disappeared in her and she, wondering where I went, left.”) interspersed with a bunch of non sequiturs: “It’s sad, isn’t it? This dead horse of a life that we beat all the wilder, all the harder, the deader it gets? . . . On the other hand, there are some really nice shops in the area.” Is the deconstructed setting a visualization of Pain’s disjointed mind?
At the end of the performance, Pain says, “I’m done with this. Important things will happen, now. I promise. . . . I know this wasn’t much, but let it be enough. Do.” Then he adds, “Boo. Isn’t it great to be alive?”
That’s about the best I can do, people. As you can gather, Thom Pain was a decidedly peculiar experience. I have no idea what to make of it! It sounded to me like a parody of Spalding Gray on acid channeling Ionesco or Beckett. If you can conceive of that. I’d need to read (and, probably reread) the script to unpack this play—and that’s not really any fun, and it’s decidedly anti-theatrical.
I can’t think of a way to report on this play. I can’t even describe it much beyond what I just said—much less evaluate it or interpret it. So, I’ve decided to approach this report from a completely different angle. (Check what I did for Perfect Crime, an awful mystery play Diana and I saw seven years ago. I couldn’t write about that play, either, so I decided to write about how the producers kept it on stage for what then had been almost 25 years despite how bad it is. That report was posted on Rick On Theater on 5 February 2011.)
Taking Ben Brantley’s New York Times “review” as a starting point, I’ll examine reviewing a play like Thom Pain. What Brantley did, which really ticked me off, was write about how this production differed from the Soho Theatre production he saw in London in 2004. (Don’t confuse London’s Soho Theatre with New York City’s Soho Repertory Theatre.) Maybe he just couldn’t come up with anything cogent to say about the STC mounting, or he didn’t want to write this review. (I know—this is similar to my own situation. But, first, I’m not being paid to render a judgment of the shows I see—that’s not my job, but it is Brantley’s and all who call themselves “drama critic.” Second, I’m not posting “reviews” on Rick On Theater; I’m posting “reports,” and I reserve the right, as this is my blog, to cover the shows I see from any perspective that strikes me as interesting.)
Brantley wasn’t the only review-writer to use the earlier production of Thom Pain (based on nothing) as a yardstick by which to measure Butler’s version for the Signature Theatre Company. (Other than Brantley, though, all of the others based their comparisons on the play’s 2005 New York début.) The Times reviewer, however, was the only one I read who based essentially his whole critique on the comparison.
On 1 December 2010, I posted ”Dante update neither divine nor comedy,” a film review by Kyle Smith of the New York Post. Smith had found a clever way to write about a movie he obviously didn’t want to bother reviewing, Jackass 3D. What Brantley did wasn’t close!
In my introduction to my repost of Smith’s review, I wrote:
I got the sense that Smith didn’t really want to review Jackass. It’s his job and he was handed the assignment, so he couldn’t just blow it off, and writing a “serious” review would have been dull—both to do and to read, I imagine. . . . But Smith found a way to do something interesting while still fulfilling his responsibility: telling us what he thought about the movie.
What Smith had done was find references and parallels in Jackass 3D’s “trademarked gross-out shenanigans” to Dante’s Divine Comedy, surely one of the most classic poems of all classic literature. (He even found parallels between Johnny Knoxville, the movie’s producer, and the medieval Italian poet himself, Dante Alighieri.) The mismatch was surely meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Smith never addressed that juxtaposition. He treated the comparison as legit, even upbraiding Hollywood for sneaking in so much surreptitious education into a boorish popular entertainment. (I congratulated Smith for his “delicious—and effective—use of irony.”)
In my afterword, I pointed out, “What gets me most here is how Smith, even while taking a humorous approach that clearly is meant to make fun of the movie itself, still manages to tell us what he thinks of it (even though, until the last sentence, he doesn’t directly state his opinion).” I concluded: “I think this may be one of the best reviews of a bad movie (in the opinion of the reviewer, of course) I’ve ever seen.” I added at the end of the intro, “There’s a lesson here for all writers . . . who are required to write about something in which they find little of interest or value.” (ROTters who are interested—and I strongly recommend this—should read Smith’s review: https://nypost.com/2010/10/15/jackass-3ds-dante-update-neither-divine-nor-comedy/.) Brantley didn’t learn it.
I feel Brantley’s review of Thom Pain, which I’ll try to summarize later, was a cop-out. He dodged his responsibility and revisited an experience he already digested 14 years ago. He opened his review by stating: “Audiences already familiar with Will Eno’s ‘Thom Pain (based on nothing) . . . may find this Stygian space roomier and less oppressive than they remembered.” Well, that’s not me. The Timesman went on to describe the STC revival in terms of Soho’s première and Hall’s performance with respect to James Urbaniak’s. Cop-out. Unhelpful cop-out.
What pissed me off was that, not having seen that London production, I have no way to understand what Brantley thought of the Signature version or how he felt about it. For me, it was a meaningless review because he assumed knowledge or experience I didn’t have; I had no frame of reference. It’s a version of the blind man and the elephant—me being the blind man and the elephant being the play.
As far as I can find, Brantley didn’t publish a notice on either the 2004 Soho Theatre mounting or its subsequent 2005 transfer to Off-Broadway in New York City so I also wasn’t sure what Brantley’s opinion of his original experience was, either. That left me with a vague impression of one experience compared with a vague impression of another. A double whammy.
There’s also the fact that Brantley based his opinion of the STC production on a previous experience, but since I’d be seeing the play (like many in the audience, I imagine, more than a few of whom would have been pretty young 14 years ago) for the first time, that kind of assessment is useless. As far as I’m concerned, Signature’s is the definitive interpretation of the play—their staging is how the play’s supposed to be done. (I don’t know how involved Eno was in the STC revival, but since they promote the notion of playwright engagement in rehearsals, and Eno is a former resident writer at the theater, I’d guess he was involved.) I want to know how Butler and Hall stack up, not against another director-actor team but against their own goals and aims for this presentation. “Comparisons are odorous” as Shakespeare’s Dogberry proclaimed.
This kind of reviewing really isn’t fair to me and theatergoers like me. It tells me little about the play I’m going to see and fills my head with extraneous information I don’t need, don’t want, and can’t use. At the same time, even though this isn’t a reviewer’s responsibility, it’s not fair to the actors, director, and designers who worked on the current production. Director Butler and actor Hall aren’t trying to make a comparable version of the Soho’s Thom Pain; they’re trying to make the best performance of the play they can based solely on Eno’s script and their artistic imaginations and creativity. If Brantley didn’t think their interpretation works, that’s fair. He should say so—and, if he can, say why he didn’t think so. But simply saying, as Brantley essentially does, that the STC revival is different from the Soho première doesn’t do me any good and does Hall, Butler, his team, and the Signature Theatre a great disservice.
Okay, let’s look at the overall critical record. Based on 21 published notices (as of 24 November), Show-Score gave Thom Pain (based on nothing) an average score of 76, which is middling in my experience with the review compiler. Of the tallied reviews, 76% were positive and 24% were mixed; there were no negative notices in the Show-Score survey. The highest score was one 95 for More Than The Play Blog, backed by two 90’s (WNYC radio and Front Row Center); the lowest a 55 for DC Theatre Scene, preceded by three 60’s (New York Times, TheaterScene.net, and New York magazine/Vulture). My review round-up will comprise 17 notices.
In that New York Times review (which received a Show-Score rating of 60, the site’s second lowest), Brantley described the play as a “full-frontal attack on the audience that Mr. Eno had engineered” and “a sustained, cryptic, circular apologia pro vita sua” that is “70 uninterrupted minutes” of Pain “wallowing in bitter self-consciousness.” In comparison to the 2004 London version, Branltey found that Oliver Butler’s revival “lets some fresh air and even a sliver of sunlight into the nocturnal depths of its title (and only) character’s imagination” and Hall’s Pain “appears as less of a lost cause than he once did” in James Urbaniak’s hands. “I can’t honestly say that this transformation is for the good,” the Times reviewer proclaimed. (I’m not going to recap all of Brantley’s characterizations of the Soho Theatre staging. Interested ROTters can read the review for themselves at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/11/theater/thom-pain-review-michael-c-hall.html.)
In 2004, Brantley acknowledged, “I may have wanted to take a shower immediately, but I was also electrified”; however, he found the play “seems to have shed its ability to shock.” The Timesman posited that “that’s partly because we have had a chance to become accustomed to the skewed perspective of Mr. Eno,” but added that “this relative tameness is also a matter of Mr. Butler and Mr. Hall’s interpretation.” In Hall’s performance, Pain’s “narrative of self-catechism and self-laceration has the carefully modulated quality of a classically trained actor doing an intense audition piece.” Brantley felt that “this Thom is seldom lovably loathsome enough to make us squirm” and therefore, “the script now registers as the product of a restless and very talented young dramatist, showing off and playing with the influences he has absorbed.”
“It’s Mr. Eno’s love for and grasp of rhythmic language that most impress here,” affirmed the Times writer. “The ghost of Beckett still hovers, but so do, just as visibly, the specters of T. S. Eliot, Edward Albee and Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man.” In conclusion, Brantley wrote: “Thom’s angst may feel a trifle sophomoric now, like something he might grow out of. But his way with words, and that of the man who created him, is already deliciously ripe.”
“‘So what was that all about?’” Max McGuinnes[s] quoted his companion at the performance in the U.S. edition of the Financial Times. “In lieu of an answer to that question,” the FT review-writer continued, he described what he saw on stage. (Sounds a little like my dilemma, doesn’t it?) Of Pain’s monologue (a taste of which I’ve tried to supply), McGuinness observed, “It would be wrong to call these musings stream-of-consciousness since they do not flow so much as limp along in fits and starts.” The reviewer found, “At just over an hour, Thom Pain goes on a bit too long”; however, “the play remains mostly entertaining thanks to Eno’s deadpan humour and some playful audience interaction, which leavens its knowing solipsism.” Noting that monologues challenge a director to decide what, aside from talking, the actor should do on stage, McGuinness deemed “Butler’s stripped-down staging acquits itself admirably on that front.” Hall, he felt, “seems at once pitiable yet faintly intimidating. And by the end, we still only have a hazy idea of who he really is.” The FT writer’s overall assessment of the STC Thom Pain was: “What we see here is a man struggling, without much success, to hold it all together and make sense of everything that has happened to him. Which is what life and theatre are all about.”
Sara Holdren of New York magazine and Vulture, whose notice also scored a 60, declared that “I found myself recoiling from [the play’s] aggressive flippancy. There’s something brittle and deceptive about Thom Pain’s systemic self-deprecation.” Thom Pain “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.” Holdren insisted, “Thom Pain is not Beckett. Its heart is still about three sizes too small and its ego is bigger than it thinks.” She reported, “The pleasure of the production is watching Hall in moments of simple, full presence.” But she continued, “The problem is that what Thom Pain wants to be and what the play is are two different things.” Holdren explained that she only knows what Eno wants the play to be because she’s read interviews, notes, and analyses of it. “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.”
She gave plenty of examples and illustrations from the text of the way “Thom is constantly appealing to our sympathy while simultaneously resorting to snide escape hatches.” In the end, however, Holdren felt, “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.” The play’s “endless cycle of reaching and running starts to feel self-defeating in ways that go past intention,” she found, and “it’s also addicted to a coldness, a nonchalance that too often exhibits the very same fear it would like to examine.” She ends by lamenting, “I feel for Eno’s poor Thom . . ., but there are limits to sympathy when its object, for all his trying, still possesses very limited courage.”
In National Review, Kyle Smith (apparently the same writer who composed the Jackass notice discussed earlier) started his review by describing encountering a man in a bar who closely resembles the Thom Pain of Eno’s play. The NR writer then noted:
The play is a digressive series of melancholy memories interrupted by absurdist asides and pointed witticisms. There is no story or lesson here, just a drolly self-aware character protecting himself behind the barbed wire of irony. In other words, the play is almost perfectly on the wavelength of, say, a self-loathing alcoholic theater critic. No, I’m not thinking of anyone in particular, why do you ask?
“Michael C. Hall . . . nails the role, delivering a series of shaggy-dog stories and updates from his consciousness with a kind of poisoned panache that leaves the audience off balance,” Smith reported. “Thom is playing games with us, like a jaded, WASP Andy Kaufman.” The NR reviewer confessed, “Eno’s words made me laugh intermittently,” but added that “the intentional shapelessness of the play vexed me.” His last word was: “Two hours of Thom’s pain would, I think, be insufferable. Luckily the show ends after an hour. Like many others in the audience, I applauded politely and walked away briskly.”
Helen Shaw, describing Thom Pain as an “elliptical, existential monologue” in Time Out New York, asserted that “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 . . . and the constant, irritating demands of the theatrical present.” She explained, “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.” Director Butler “has given it a very handsome and polished revival,” but Shaw found that the play “has to fight a little too hard to be heard in the” large Diamond house. Hall, she felt, “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.” The TONY review-writer observed, “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.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck’s “Bottom Line” was “Hall delivers a riveting turn that makes this challenging play fully accessible.” He quipped, “If Samuel Beckett and James Joyce had a literary love child, it would be Will Eno’s Thom Pain (Based on Nothing),” which Scheck described as “an existential stand-up routine, delivered by a man riffing on life’s disappointments and absurdities in alternately comic and bitter tones,” but it “never really coheres into a discernible storyline, which will certainly prove frustrating for those looking for a linear narrative.” Nonetheless, the HR reviewer asserted that “the play’s deliciously clever wordplay and theatrical inventiveness provide myriad rewards for the more open-minded.” The STC revival “particularly highlights the work’s strengths, thanks to [Hall’s] formidable charisma and charm.” Scheck reported, “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.” Hall, the review-writer found, “is mesmerizing throughout” and “makes the piece accessible and engaging.” Scheck concluded that “Thom Pain may not be for all tastes, but adventurous theatergoers are unlikely ever to experience it in a more riveting presentation.”
Marilyn Stasio, calling Thom Pain “unsettling” in Variety, said that “the play was deliberately designed to make us uncomfortable about all the supposedly immutable verities, from the objective reality of our common language to truth itself.” Stasio affirmed that “Eno’s intellectually dizzying drama is still a dangerous thrill.” The Variety reviewer explained:
Although Eno was a protégé of Edward Albee, his absurdist sensibility reaches further back to Albee’s less playful philosophical mentor, Samuel Beckett. This non-linear narrative—an explosive outburst of dazzling wordplay concocted of unfinished anecdotes, unstructured asides, and stream-of-consciousness ramblings—is decidedly, triumphantly Beckettian.
Hall, she reported, is “persuasive” and his “deadly deadpan is deeply funny, in an unnerving way.” Stasio found that he “tries his level best to be true to this self-absorbed character; but he just can’t help himself. He’s a fine actor, but a personable one, much too likable to pull off the character’s blinding, self-regarding narcissism.” She concluded, “If you look it in the eye, Eno’s soul-searching monologue is nothing less than a searing meditation on the meaning of life. But if you look at it sideways, it’s more of a sick joke.”
On WNYC radio, an NPR outlet in New York City, Jennifer Vanasco warned that “nothing much happens in this 70 minutes of seemingly aimless ruminating.” Then she added, “And yet there’s so much beauty and humanity in it.” Pain’s narrative “should be sentimental or sad or feel manipulative, but it’s not and it doesn’t,” reported Vanasco in her review that scored a 90 on Show-Score. “Partly this is because of Eno’s beautiful and eccentric verbal imagery,” she explained, “and the way he undercuts each perfect word picture with eerie tragedy.” Hall, the reviewer felt, “brings out the dark poetry of this play. He is ingratiating without ever being fully knowable, esoteric while still grounded in his body. He’s funny, charming and completely believable.” She summed up by observing, “This is an astoundingly intimate show. It’s a direct look into someone’s unfiltered brain—sometimes wandering, ugly and shallow, while at other times focused, lovely and profound.”
Show-Score’s highest-rated review, a 95, was Domenick Danza’s notice on More Than The Play, in which the reviewer declared:
The subtleties are astounding in Will Eno’s Thom Pain (Based on Nothing). This play tells a captivating tale of loss of innocence, finding love, losing love, and maintaining hope. Mr. Eno plays with words in this seventy-minute, one-character play that vividly depict the dichotomy of life’s journey. His use of language brilliantly paints the landscape of emotion that floods the turning point events that define a life.
Butler’s direction “seamlessly connects moment to moment, pulling truth to the surface of this distinctive theatrical work that is rich in subtext.” Danza felt that Hall “maintains composure and distance, while engaging the packed house on an emotional level” and “evokes a sense of empathy from the audience.” In the end, Danza found, “This play is a unique and intimate experience that will speak exclusively to each person who sees and hears it. Don’t miss it!”
Once again, New York Stage Review posted two notices. Elysa Gardner asserted, “Thom Pain is . . . something of a magic act . . .—a bleakly comic, brutally detailed study of human frailty and suffering that somehow . . . becomes life-affirming.” Calling it a “significantly meandering 75-minute monologue of a play” and a “ruminative monodrama,” Michael Sommers labeled Thom Pain “a journey through the existential tangles of one middle-aged man’s mind.” Sommers was the second reviewer to report that the Diamond stage “is not so conducive to an intimate solo show,” but he added that “Butler’s supportive production and Hall’s intriguing presence usually are able to bridge the distance.”
On Talkin’ Broadway, James Wilson thought that Thom Pain, which he dubbed a “discursive, confounding, and invigorating monologue,” “demonstrates the futility of words and the limitations of language to connect thought with feeling, experience with reflection, and the individual with the world.” Wilson asserted, despite the difficult personality of his narrator, that “Eno has created a highly entertaining, poignant, and intellectually stimulating evening.” He affirmed, “Under Oliver Butler's direction, this is also a master class in comedy” and “Hall is outstanding.” (Unlike the other reviewers who felt that the Diamond’s large stage was a drawback, Wilson found that the “larger space intensifies the feelings of isolation.”) In the end, the TB reviewer advised, “The most effective way to experience the play is to give oneself over to it and luxuriate in the moments of linguistic playfulness and emotional catharsis.”
“In its own deliberately aimless way, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) is a profoundly existential work,” observed Kenji Fujishima on TheaterMania, “with Pain’s struggle to give his own life meaning peeking through the numerous bits of trickery and wordplay he employs to avoid confronting the big questions.” The TM review-writer explained, “Because so much of the interior drama in Eno’s play lies in what Thom Pain doesn’t say, it’s up to the performer to locate and transmit the psychological desperation between the lines” and continued that “this is where director Oliver Butler’s new production falls short.” He felt that “a sense of pained inner life is lacking in Hall’s interpretation, with the actor seemingly prizing speed over depth in delivering his character’s ramblings, skating right over his character’s tragic pathos as a result.” Fujishima asserted, “The experience of watching Thom Pain is akin to chasing after smoke.” In conclusion, the TM reviewer reported that “this new production leaves us feeling more like we’ve gone on an entertaining roller-coaster ride through a man’s mind than truly gotten a glimpse into his agonized soul. More than anything, this Thom Pain unsettles us less in its evocations of existential desire than in the sense that this material has much more to yield emotionally than it lets on.”
On CurtainUp, Charles Wright, whose review scored a 65, reported that “Thom’s recollections, though colorfully phrased, are often cryptic, with a seeming randomness that guarantees the audience occasional surprise if little in the way of suspense.” (After quoting Isherwood’s 2005 New York Times praise of Thom Pain, Wright wondered “how Eno . . . might have fared—and what course his career might have taken—had Isherwood not been on the Times theater desk 13 years ago.”) Having seen the 2005 production, Wright found, “The play struck me then, and strikes me now, as intriguing on the surface, with what’s beneath having only a glancing connection to lived experience.” In comparison, he felt that “the 2018 Thom Pain is no more satisfying; but the magnified scale of this production suits the grandiosity of Eno’s exercise in synthetic Beckettry.” The CU reviewer concocted a decidedly unusual finale for his assessment:
The fact that Thom Pain (based on nothing) is getting this superb revival suggests that there’s a sizable audience that will share Charles Isherwood’s enthusiasm for Eno’s Beckett-inflected navel-gazing. Others, though, are bound to identify with the hapless audience member to whom Hall, as poor Mr. Pain, says, “If I were you, I’d be sick of this already. I’d feel restless. I’d feel like eating or urinating.” Or, perhaps, be wishing for an intermission to permit a discreet exit.
Joel Benjamin of TheaterScene.net was another reviewer who not only compared the Butler-Hall Thom Pain with the Brooks-Urbaniak production but found the new one a shadow of the original version. Benjamin based his objections largely on the differences between Hall’s Pain and Urbaniak’s. (He did complain about the “overzealous production” in the Diamond Stage.) Hall, the TS reviewer thought, “is a fine actor who keeps the audience fascinated, but he turns the play into a standup routine.” He asked, “[W]hy spend an hour-plus with a pleasant, slightly irritating person [Hall’s Pain] when you could just as easily be moved, shocked and titillated by a borderline lunatic [Urbaniak] (knowing full well that the relationship would last only a finite period). Which is the better theatrical experience?” Benjamin also found that Butler “gives Hall great leeway, making for a relaxed atmosphere, rather than a pacing-in-a-prison-of-his-own-making presentation.”
New York Theatre Guide’s David Walters told us, “At the beginning of the play, Thom says that he doesn’t like magic, but just as nothing is everything, ultimately this is a play all about magic. The magic of human interaction.” Walters reported, “The thoughts and observations falling out of [Pain’s] mind are not linear and dance from avoidance, to gallows humor, to deep profundity that will leave you searching those parallels in your own life.” The NYTG writer characterized Eno’s writing as “a deep poetry . . ., a poetry of reflection, judgement and the bitter irony of what befalls us as we grumble, stumble and tumble through our lives.”
On DC Theatre Scene, which received Show-Score’s lowest rating at 55, Jonathan Mandell (whose review also appears on his blog, New York Theater) quipped, “Like a boxer faking out an opponent, Michael C. Hall as Thom Pain plays tricks on the audience.” Mandell then observed, “But a prizefighter feints to win the match,” asking “What’s the point of the 70 minutes of the mild audience abuse, self-conscious digressions and interruptions, deliberately unfunny jokes and funny non-sequiturs, bleak stories, and self-pitying effusions that make up Thom Pain (based on nothing) . . .?” Answering his own question, the DCTS reviewer stated, “The easy out would be to answer that a good performance at least keeps our attention.” He surmised, “Those theatergoers who have seen a previous production are likely to be disappointed by the Off-Broadway revival at the Signature.” Mandell admitted, “I struggle to see anything profound in Thom Pain,” though “I can’t deny Eno’s sly wordplay.” Still, the review-writer asserted, “For Thom’s jousts and jabs to feel like something more than random cleverness and intermittent entertainment, the actor must somehow show us an interior life that’s seething, longing, striving, bursting with sadness and anger and resentments and pain that he’s trying to mask.” As his final comment on the play and the character, Mandell wrote, “When [Pain] asks, ‘Does it scare you? Being face to face with the modern mind?’ your answer might be: If only.”
I peeked at some past reviews of the original production of Thom Pain in 2004/05 and some of the earlier revivals, and they all left me just as confused as the STC performance itself. Still, it’s astounding how laudatory most of them were! I wonder if there’s an “Emperor’s New Clothes” dynamic operating—no one wants to admit they don’t know what the hell Eno was on about.
I peeked at some past reviews of the original production of Thom Pain in 2004/05 and some of the earlier revivals, and they all left me just as confused as the STC performance itself. Still, it’s astounding how laudatory most of them were! I wonder if there’s an “Emperor’s New Clothes” dynamic operating—no one wants to admit they don’t know what the hell Eno was on about.
[When I was but a lad, back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, one of the comedians we used to listen to—they were on TV variety shows (anybody remember those?) and we bought the albums and listened to them over and over until we knew the routines by heart—did a bit on the plays of writers like Harold Pinter. It might have been Shelley Berman, but if not, it was one of his contemporaries. Anyway, after talking about these plays in which the characters struggle and fail to communicate, the comic raised his voice and proclaimed, “I think that people who can’t communicate should just shut up!” Of course, if that had happened, about three-quarters of modern drama would cease to exist. Nonetheless, I think of that line maybe once every three or four months. This was one of those times.]