James Urbaniak in Thom Pain (based on nothing)
(Photo © Aaron Epstein)
James Urbaniak in Thom Pain (based on nothing)
(Photo © Aaron Epstein)
Thom Pain (based on nothing) is one of the oddest shows I've ever seen -- and I've seen some odd shows. Written by Will Eno and performed by James Urbaniak, it's a meandering monologue in which a character called Thom Pain talks about life, love, magic, and loss while desperately trying to maintain control of his narrative.

Thom goes off on tangents that seemingly lead nowhere but then unexpectedly make connections to something he's said before. He keeps stepping out of the light (Mark Barton is the lighting designer) and a plea to get a bit of illumination in the area where he's standing is completely ignored, forcing him to retreat back to the portion of the stage that's illuminated. He asks for volunteers, changes his mind, changes it again -- and when he finally does get someone to come up on stage, Thom seems at a loss as to what to do with him.

Portions of the play appear to be improvised but later, in retrospect, seem as if they may have been meticulously planned. For example: Was the audience member who walked out early on in the show a plant? It's hard to say. When the man departed, Urbaniak seemed thrown for a loop, but then he launched into an apparently spontaneous speech that tied in the exit with other things that he was saying and would later elaborate upon.

Thom's story is told with many stops and starts, pauses and digressions. Several of the images evoked in the text will stay with you. For example: Thom talks about a dim-witted boy -- possibly himself at a younger age -- who disturbs a bee's nest. The boy doesn't make the correlation between the bees and the painful bumps that are appearing on his body. In fact, he thinks that the insects are trying to help him, so he keeps sticking his hand back in the hive and rubbing the bees on his swollen body.

Eno has a way of turning a phrase so that it sticks in your mind. As Thom describes his ill-fated love affair with a young woman, he remarks, "I disappeared in her and she, wondering where I went, left." He contradicts himself later, saying that it was he who left before she could tire of him. Thom proves an unreliable narrator, and you're never quite sure how much you should believe what he says.

Urbaniak possesses a deep voice and immaculate diction; he fills the onstage pauses with a stage presence that is not so much commanding as it is fascinating and compelling. There's a dangerous edge to the way Urbaniak speaks and moves, and much of the power of his performance lies not in what he does but in what he might do. The actor's quirky mannerisms provoke laughter, yet one gets the feeling that there's a lot of pain and anger within Thom that only occasionally surfaces.

Directed by Hal Brooks, the show is only 70 minutes long, with no intermission. At its conclusion, audience members may not know exactly what they just saw or what it was supposed to mean. Is Thom Pain a meditation on disappointment? An exercise in futility? Perhaps both. One thing is certain, however. Even if the piece is based on nothing, as its subtitle proclaims, its unconventional style makes it far more interesting than many other plays that are currently on the boards.