“Does it scare you? Being face to face with the modern mind?” Thom Pain, in the persuasive person of Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”), throws out the challenge at the top of Will Eno’s unsettling show “Thom Pain (Based on Nothing).” “It should,” he warns. And, in the end, it does, because 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.
The play started life at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. From there, it transferred to London and then to Off Broadway in 2005, the same year it became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Like its literary antecedents, it feels timeless.
Today, sitting in the literal dark with the unpredictable narrator of Eno’s intellectually dizzying drama is still a dangerous thrill. Right from the start, this intentionally undefined character toys with the audience and continues doing so throughout the show — cruelly, not kindly. We actually cringe when he asks for a volunteer to join him on stage. (“No way!” you can almost hear the collective prayer of the audience — possibly even muttered by the person reluctantly pressed into service.)
Clearly, this Pain person is, as his name informs us, a man in pain. And having experienced a lifetime of hurt and rejection, he proceeds to inflict that pain on the audience. “Don’t be troubled by what you might perceive as obscure, hard, troublous,” he cautions us, in Hall’s creepily charming narrative voice. “Just remember the simple human picture before you.”
The first “simple human” word picture he draws is a sob story about a little boy in a cowboy hat (but no cowboy boots, which seems kind of sad). It’s a sympathetic if slight portrayal of a lonely child — until he gets to the point of the narrative: “Now, break his arm.”
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’s deadly deadpan is deeply funny, in an unnerving way. Does he mean it when he asks for an audience volunteer? Or is he just messing with our minds? The real question, of course, is: Who is this Pain person? “I’m like him,” this slippery character says of an audience plant who has ostentatiously left the house. “I strike people as a person who just left.”
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 — which is probably the same thing. It’s all in the telling of the story, which is basically the story of a little boy who grows up in a cold, cruel world and lives to tell the tale.
In the text, this Thom Pain is revealed as a not-very-nice person obsessed with life — not the Life in which we all share, but with his own narrow existence. Hall 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. Under the direction of Oliver Butler, co-founder and artistic director of The Debate Society, the actor has been well-schooled in the subtle sneer that indicates charming contempt for everyone outside his own skin. But nice is nice, and this Thom Pain is someone too good for his world — and ours.