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Theatre Journal 57.4 (2005) 754-756

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Thom Pain: (Based on Nothing). By Will Eno. Directed by Hal Brooks. DR2 Theatre, New York City. 6 May 2005.

Why did this production receive some of the strongest reviews of the season and a twice-extended run in the heart of New York City? The production aesthetics seem to work against popularity. The DR2 is narrow and uninviting, James Urbaniak's drab black suit, messy tie and hair, and large eyeglasses that match his non-props—a chair, a glass of water on a table—all fit an audience off-putting mold. Thom Pain reinforces these visual impressions when, almost immediately upon the actor's appearance, a disgruntled individual (read plant) rushes for the exit.

The production's apparently conscious antipathy continues as the show unfolds. Thom Pain semi-greets his audience, and begins to tell/ask a series of non sequitors. He likes magic, he doesn't like magic. He asks, "When did your childhood end?" and remarks, "You're a nice looking crowd." "I need a volunteer; forget about it." Eventually the story of a boy witnessing his dog's electrocution and then being totally ignored at home begins to filter through Thom's circuitous remarks. Another narrative eventually emerges about a dream of bees that sting him—curing him, he imagines erroneously. Then Thom/James Urbaniak confides something of his lost love, "We got along for a while, what are we supposed to learn about this?" He ruminates about brains—a baby's brain, an old man's brain, memories. And each time the audience begins to feel empathy for this obviously intelligent, unhappy, still fairly young man, he manages to "diss" us. Most jarring is the treatment given the "volunteer" he finally succeeds in calling up on stage: this audience representative is completely ignored, left standing next to that single chair, and eventually asked why he's still there. In his final moments Thom describes once more seeing the woman who had been his love—in the city morgue. She didn't see him, and that was that. Observing his audience closely once again, he remarks that so many come two by two.

Two plays from the past came clearly to mind as we left the DR2: the first New York performance of Albee's The Zoo Story, and the first English-language New York performance of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, presented as a double bill at the Provincetown Playhouse in early 1960. I had actively disliked both one-acts upon first seeing them, as I now disliked Thom Pain. In The Zoo Story a youngish Jerry jerks middle-aged Peter around, while youngish Thom Pain jerks his audience around. A "dog story" is also central to both plays. In Beckett's one-act, an old banana-munching Krapp jerks his own taped autobiography around, pushing forward and rewind buttons until, as if against his will, he zeros in on the thirty-year-old reminiscence of his lost love life. Thom Pain, too, jerks the memories of the woman he loved around: in his case, the tape recorder of his mind does the fast forwarding and the rewinding. And his refreshment is the solitary glass of water picked up from the solitary table. Imagined as a sequential trio of one-acts about solitary lives, however, the "meal" offered the audience spirals swiftly downward: two lives collide in The Zoo Story; parts of a life are recorded and commented on in Krapp's Last Tape; some disconcerting memories are statically described in Thom Pain.

What is it, then, about this hour-long monologue that merits enthusiastic review and critical acclaim as 2005 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama? [End Page 754]

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Figure 1
James Urbaniak performing Thom Pain (based on nothing) at NYC's DR2 Theatre. Photo: Aaron Epstein.

There are two elements, I believe, each enhancing the playwright's purposeful sense of contradiction:

  1. Reverse stage technique. While stage direction...


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