The Beckettian monologue of a tortured soul, “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” arrives Off Broadway after winning top honors at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and, more recently, from a well-received run at London’s Soho Theater. In an ideal marriage between writer and actor, Will Eno’s sui generis work sideswipes the unsuspecting audience, making them an aide to Pain’s poetic dysfunction, as scrupulously rendered by the beguiling James Urbaniak.
A spark from a match, which fails to light a cigarette, marks Pain’s entrance onto the stage. “How wonderful to see you all,” he says, in the dark, and tries again, unsuccessfully. Thus begins the next hour, spent with a man who wants you to know all he has suffered in life, by making you laugh, but suffer a little, too.
The audience serves as Pain’s badly needed confidant, and as an emotional punching bag on which he works out his childhood pains and patterns. One moment Thom is gently relating his past, even flattering his guests, but in a flash his resonant, erudite-sounding voice flips to a booming, crisp cruelty, revoking kindness and severing any connection made before.
Pain leads a recurring visualization about a young boy in a cowboy suit drawing in a puddle with a stick, which on one occasion spirals into the abstract with Pain throwing out images like the illustrator of a surrealist dream.
“Now picture that the stick he is writing with is a violin bow,” he lyrically suggests. “Picture a violin section, picture every living person as a violin section,” he goes on, his voice growing more dramatic. “Picture the readiness, the stillness, the virtuosity. Among this, the child. Picture ash blowing across a newly blue sky. Now go fuck yourselves.”
The brusque ending provides an illustration of the pet-the-puppy, kick-the-puppy psychology Pain has presumably been on the receiving end of in the past.
There is so little concretely known about this character’s life that the actor works from both an advantage and a disadvantage in creating Pain’s persona. Lanky and boyish, with an impenetrable poker face, Urbaniak disappears inside Pain without a trace. The character, the actor and the man become seamlessly one. In ’50s-style glasses and a dark gray suit, more dated than snazzy, the man presented to us lies somewhere between a schizophrenic, a professor and the singer in a retro-modern band.
At once unreliable and sympathetic, Pain never offers a full linear story about himself, instead conjuring slices of memory and flashes of a scene by setting, or rather suggesting a mood. He then sprinkles it all with a dash of comic relief, as in the shadowy story of a doomed past love affair with a woman who tells him “You’ve changed” on the night they meet.
The monologue intermingles its more serious themes with absurdities that thread through the narrative — a raffle Pain hopes we held on to our tickets for, magic tricks he almost performs, a woman in the front row whom he claims to recognize. At one point, house lights up, Pain makes his way through the audience searching for a “subject,” preferably wearing light clothing, who speaks another language and likes a little violence. “Anyone will do, but it has to be someone. Who of you deserves it most?” he asks. No one is chosen, but there is a prickly uneasiness to sitting under the gaze of such an odd, volatile man as he slowly surveys his watchers.
Another segment returns to the boy and the puddle, with Pain suddenly shifting his tone to ask, “When did your childhood end? How badly did you get hurt, when you did, when you were this wee, little, hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words? Isn’t it wonderful how we never recover?”
Though on one hand the character is dead serious in what he is saying, Urbaniak delivers these discomforting questions with such a sardonic remove that it’s difficult to know what to feel. Pain is never maudlin, and even in his awkwardness, always a little smug, his rhythmic speech pauses to set words and phrases apart like a conductor charting musical movements in language and memory.