Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) is, I suspect, one of the oddest pieces of theater you will ever encounter, and one of the most memorable. Will Eno’s expectation-shattering monologue, currently on view June 15-18 and 22-25 at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC, takes the single-actor form and turns it, not simply on its head, but sideways, backward, and horizontal.
One-man (or one-woman) shows are notoriously problematic, and generally biographical, e.g., The Belle of Amherst, Give ‘em Hell Harry, Master Class, and the absolute nadir, the Teddy Roosevelt-inspired Bully! Once in a great while, a truly original work explodes the genre; I’m thinking specifically of Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lentil, Lanford Wilson’s A Picture of the Cosmos, and Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series (especially Bed Among the Lentils). To this modest inventory, we can now add Thom Pain.
As performed with authority, brio, and a poetic elasticity of mind and body by Jay O’Berski under Jeff Storer’s unerring direction, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) is rambling and specific, playful and angry. A hum of hostility percolates throughout the piece, directed both outwardly, at the audience and inwardly, at the man himself. It’s the fury of a human being annoyed with explaining himself, contemptuous of his listeners, and incapable of anything but indirect self-dissection. His weapons are wordplay, digression, puns — verbal sleight-of-hand. He buries his pain—hence the ironic title (Eno’s protagonist is the opposite of Thomas Paine, author of the more straightforward Common Sense) — beneath verbiage, often witty, sometimes wildly funny, but self-defeatingly unsuccessful at deflecting the connections we make, which he’d rather we didn’t.
I jotted a dozen or more of Eno’s salient, beautifully composed lines in my notebook; but I’m loath to disclose any of them. It’s that sort of experience; you want an audience to come into it fresh, unsullied by overly informed expectation. Thom Pain is, despite (or, perhaps, because of) its audacious mix of anger and denial, a deeply humane work, troubling in the very best sense. And it’s hard to imagine Will Eno better served by an actor or a director than here. Jay O’Berski’s performance, and Jeff Storer’s direction of it, resonate. Whether you like it or not. I like it.
Manbites Dog Theater presents Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) Thursday-Saturday, June 15-17 and 22-24, at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, June 18 and 25, at 3:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $15, except $10 Thursdays. 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/136/. Thom Pain (Based on Nothing): http://www.thompain.com/ [inactive 4/07].