Playwright Will Eno’s one-man show Thom Pain (based on nothing) flies any way you like it. Surely, this depends upon that day’s audience’s intellect and responses. Indeed, one focus of the production entails the shared consciousness between Thom Pain and his listeners. Layered, multi-dimensional, this ethereal communication blossoms in the world created between the audience and Michael C. Hall as Thom. Reflecting upon this daunting effort comes a startling idea. This consciousness creation captivates beyond knowing every performance is different because it is live.
The portrayal of Thom Pain in the hands of Hall shepherded by Oliver Butler makes this production live theater on steroids. Hall’s very present performance magnifies each moment. The impact is powerful. Indeed, Hall’s Pain with subtle humor plows into the sardonic and tragic-comic furrows of our own humanity. He does this through contradictory impulses. On the one hand, as Thom he attempts to suppress his feelings and “manage them.” On the other hand he feels compelled to express/expurgate what makes him and all of us human: feelings of hurt. We understand the tense conflict between the compulsion to reveal and the desire to suppress. Daily, we accomplish this with friends, acquaintances, and ourselves, whether we admit it or not.
By extension these apparent contradictions in Thom create the tautness we feel when he pauses or pointedly addresses us by the royal “you.” Hence, we identify with his inner conflict to express and repress. Also, the tension helps to create immediacy. For Thom tells us whatever he wishes with urgent authenticity. And his suppressed pain guides his childhood revelations. Is he conscious of his suppressed pain? Certainly, it evidences in his demeanor, hesitations, attempts at humor, and need to talk to us.
Directed with a stark relevance and clever re-imagining, Oliver Butler spins out Eno’s irreverent, perplexing, Beckett-like piece. Thom’s ramblings move into places that settle on topics with uncertain happenstance, like the flight and landing of a wary sparrow. And then Eno, Hall, and Butler spiral the piece in a completely different direction. This is a superlative plot twist, as if a sparrow startled itself unexpectedly, then rapidly skedaddled.
Notably, Thom often redirects back to us. He puts us “on the line” for examination and a silent or vocal refrain as he confesses his observations about his life. At one point during this audience-participatory moment, an individual did respond orally when Hall’s Thom asked for a volunteer. The individual commented about a time he volunteered to go on stage during a Spalding Gray production. Hall responded as one would imagine Thom Pain as Hall would respond (not the other way around). The audience chortled and guffawed.
That exact moment with that particular audience and that gentleman remains the quintessential element of theater. It was classic, alive, and immediate. And it will never be duplicated, not even if all the same individuals returned to try to repeat it. Great theater should be about the unrecapturable, spontaneous life evoked by actors. That life spiritually refreshes. It’s priceless and breathtaking.
Likewise, Hall’s performance enlivens, refreshes, rejuvenates throughout. Ironically, the content, the playwright states, is based on “nothing.” So process rather than content activates the audience. But, sans the content conveyed by the consciousness between Hall and his audience, no “life” would be possible. Hall’s Thom and Eno’s words and Butler’s direction find their perfect union in receptive ready minds.
Such production artistry occurs when the key players open themselves to the universe. Whatever Hall’s Thom appears to seek from us at each moment carries us all to the next string of moments in the show. This immediacy, made possible through Hall’s many superlative talents, strikes humor and wariness into the audience’s hearts.
For his part, when Hall ventures into the audience and/or asks for a volunteer, we turn on high alert. Hall’s relaxed, graceful portrayal never moves to result. He breathes with the rhythms of Eno’s Everyman clown stuck in a consciousness of others. Subsequently, his attempt at moving forward continually displaces him back to his key hurtful childhood incident. And it sends him to other key incidents in his life from which he attempts to make particular sense. Ironically, these efforts turn into a weird null. But Hall so unequivocally captures Thom that we stay with him, curious where he goes next.
The ironic parenthetical in the title, “based on nothing,” implies that Thom Pain’s musings to the audience lead, in his perspective, nowhere and come from “not much.” Not so! The very profound themes of existence, consciousness, life purpose, and memory sprinkled among his more ordinary, off-handed remarks lead us to joyful questions about ourselves.
With his incredible acting instrument, as if listening for our thoughts, Hall enthralls from the beginning when darkness engulfs the entire theater. Seamlessly we arrive at the ending, when Hall asks the audience the ultimate question. And I, of course, in my mind as other audience members did, selected an answer from a myriad of choices. The rest of the audience ruminated or sat in noncommittal silence without too much further thought.
By the outburst of applause at the conclusion, Eno, Hall, and Butler had assuredly hit their target. Strangely, I felt not only uplifted but cleansed of the last year and one half of angst-ridden and confounding “breaking news” stresses. What a pleasure to communicate mentally, silently with Hall as Thom Pain and share in the privilege of theatrical art.
Any day, give me the existential crisis of attempting to make sense of the uncertainty of consciousness, of shifting memory, felt emotional loss, pain, and the clown’s struggle of existence. At least my mind wasn’t being assaulted with the president’s narcissistic pronouncements in a time, place, and space which daily confound him and menaces a majority of the citizenry. After seeing Thom Pain, I am reminded to laugh. If our body politic is at a critical mass of mess, so? My answer to the last question of the play ends in laughter!
The actor’s sincerity and the moment-to-moment life he breathes through Eno’s words washes over one like a beautiful, clear river.
Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) slides through your viewing appreciation without an intermission at The Pershing Square Signature Center in NYC. The production has been extended through 9 December.