×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘Thom Pain (Based on Nothing)’

Michael C. Hall is the one man in Will Eno’s one-man show about a man in the grip of a profound existential crisis.

With:
Michael C. Hall.

1 hour 10 minutes

“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.

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'Thom Pain (Based on Nothing)'

Signature Center / Diamond Theater; 299 sets; $35 top. Opened Nov. 11, 2018. Reviewed Nov. 7. Running time: ONE HOUR, 10 MIN.

Production: A Signature Theater presentation of a play in one act by Will Eno.

Creative: Directed by Oliver Butler. Set, Amy Rubin; costume design, Anita Yavich; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Lee Kinney; production stage manager, Charles M. Turner, III.

Cast: Michael C. Hall.

More Legit

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content