Michael C. Hall Breezes Through an Existential Crisis in Thom Pain (Based on Nothing)
Signature Theatre presents a revival of Will Eno's 2004 one-man play.
Will Eno may give Thom Pain the parenthetical subtitle (Based on Nothing), but in fact, his 2004 solo play — currently being presented in a Signature Theatre revival — is, in its own idiosyncratic way, about everything. Life, death, childhood trauma, domestic disillusionment, ecstatic joy, terrifying despair: Thom Pain touches on all of these universal experiences and emotions in a stream-of-consciousness monologue in which he flits from topic to topic, begins anecdotes before dropping them and then picking them up again, and approaches epiphanies before running away from them through jokes and fourth-wall-breaking gimmicks. But Eno's play is much more than just a playful comic lark. In its own deliberately aimless way, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) is a profoundly existential work, with Pain's struggle to give his own life meaning peeking through the numerous bits of trickery and wordplay he employs to avoid confronting the big questions.
Because so much of the interior drama in Eno's play lies in what Thom Pain doesn't say, it's up to the performer to locate and transmit the psychological desperation between the lines. Alas, this is where director Oliver Butler's new production falls short. Michael C. Hall, the star of this Signature Theatre production, is dynamic enough as an actor to hold our attention for 70 minutes, keeping us rapt through Pain's quicksilver mood changes and evasive forays into whimsy. But a sense of pained inner life is lacking in Hall's interpretation, with the actor seemingly prizing speed over depth in delivering his character's ramblings, skating right over his character's tragic pathos as a result. It's as if he decided at the outset to focus more on the surface of Eno's flurry of words, trusting that the subtext would take care of itself.
Perhaps that's not inherently an invalid way to handle a work as multifaceted as Thom Pain, and it's a tribute to the richness of Eno's play that it survives a relatively superficial approach. Certainly, for those coming to this work for the first time, the sheer strangeness of its core conceit is enough to compel attention: a one-man show centered around a figure who alternates between being confessional and being obscurantist, who desires audience approval yet resentfully pushes them away, who exudes sincerity even when he indulges in flights of deadpan humorous fancy. The experience of watching Thom Pain is akin to chasing after smoke, with us in the audience put in the position of trying to keep up with Thom Pain's own scattered mind, a sense of wholeness eluding us in the way a similar wholeness surely eludes Pain himself.
Oliver Butler aids in that sense of spiritual rootlessness with a production that finds unexpected pockets of visual beauty within its minimalist design. There's not much more to Amy Rubin's set than some detritus shoved into the corners of the stage as well as a closet with its door open, yet Jen Schriever's spare lighting design, with the foreground illuminated and the background shrouded in darkness, infuses the production with a sense of a blank slate filled in only by Thom Pain's words. And costume designer Anita Pavich emphasizes Pain's utter ordinariness by outfitting him with a humdrum black-and-white suit, with thin white stripes on his tie being his only concession to style.
All of the design elements fit in with Eno's melancholically comic vision of a man reckoning with his spiritual emptiness — which makes it a shame that this new production leaves us feeling more like we've gone on an entertaining roller-coaster ride through a man's mind than truly gotten a glimpse into his agonized soul. More than anything, this Thom Pain unsettles us less in its evocations of existential desire than in the sense that this material has much more to yield emotionally than it lets on.