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Will Eno and Michael C. Hall's Conversation on Thom Pain Gets Interrupted by Life

Hall stars in the first major New York revival of Eno's solo play Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) at Signature Theatre.

Playwright Will Eno and actor Michael C. Hall first worked together on the Broadway production of The Realistic Joneses in 2014.

Now they are collaborating with director Oliver Butler on a revival of Eno's Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) at Signature Theatre. Thom Pain is a 70-minute play that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and put Eno on the theater-world map. Here's how he describes it: "Thom Pain is trying to tell his life story and gets interrupted by the fact that he's alive."

Before a recent performance, the pair sat down for an elliptical conversation about the unknowable, a topic as existential as the play itself.

Michael C. Hall stars in Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), directed by Oliver Butler, at Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© oan Marcus)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Will, how does it feel to be returning to this work 13, 14 years later?

Will Eno: It's funny, I thought it might feel slightly regressive to be looking back, and then Michael C. Hall just blew in on the first day of rehearsals pretty much off book, and with this incredibly grounded and also very alive and open take on it. All around, it has been a joyous and happy experience.

Michael C. Hall: It's been very joyful, with a really easy way of putting it together by talking about it and throwing a ball around and talking about it some more. I mean that quite literally. We spent a lot of time throwing a ball around during rehearsals. There's something I find very satisfyingly mysterious about this piece, and there's something about the way we all talk about it that feels, on the one hand specific, but also maintaining some sort of, I don't want to say reverence, but some sort of appreciation…

Will: Respect.

Michael: Yeah. For what can't be said. The fact that I can't help but speak kind of elliptically about it is probably a good sign.

Michael C. Hall and Will Eno in rehearsal for Thom Pain (Based on Nothing).
(© Gregory Costanzo)

Michael, what was it about Will's writing that enticed you as an actor, and Will, what is it about Michael as an actor that you respond to?

Michael: I had an immediate affinity for Will's language. When I did The Realistic Joneses, before my character even came on the page, there was something about the way the characters were saying things that really just appealed to me. Things feel not, at one point absurd and at another point profound, but simultaneously both. They simultaneously fold in on themselves and blossom. I don't know. He's a wizard.

Will: I can't tell you what a joy it is to work on a play with Michael, and it's partly that simultaneity. I don't really think, "Let's make this a sad line" or "Let's make this a funny one." Sometimes, I smile to myself, or confuse myself a little bit, and there are things I hope are funny, and things I hope are moving or pointed, and with Michael, there's a pressure behind every word.

The whole time I've known him, Michael has been a person who can very easily have that conversation about the big, sort-of unknowable, sort-of mysterious, sort-of amazing things in life, and do it with lightness and energy. You seem like a person who is interested in those things.

Michael: Yeah.

Will: And then I remembered you talking about how intrigued you were at going out every night and seeing what it might be. That, to me, is the most exciting thing. That takes probably tons and tons of craft, because you have to have all of your ducks in a row, and a moral bravery to just step out there. And that has been the case. We've had, 10 or 11 shows…

Michael: 16. And they all have a unique kind of flavor. It's a room of about 300 people who collectively take on a character, with whom I'm acting. They're my partner, and it's a different partner every night. I don't go backstage and whisper about what I think of the house. I sort of just talk to them about it…

Michael, Will gave his take on the piece, but how do you describe it?

Michael: I think it speaks for itself, so I try not to encapsulate it. I will say I think it's really worth seeing.

Will Eno is the playwright of Thom Pain (Based on Nothing).
(© Gregory Costanzo)