Monday, October 23, 2006

Being UnAlone
Thom Pain;(based on nothing) by Will Eno
at New Repertory

Who order'd that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd?
Who renders vain their deep desire?--
A God, a God their severence ruled;
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea.
-To Marguerite, Matthew Arnold


The New Rep production fo Thom Pain: (based on nothing,) surprised me with its emotional climax. I had read the text back when James Urbaniak was performing Will Eno's short little stealth missle of a play, but was unprepared for how moved I was going to feel at the end.

During its initial success, I reviewed the critical praises it was receiving and was intrigued with the concept. Charles Ishwerwood of the New York Times, in a rave review of Thom Pain, famously praised Will Eno by calling him "the Samuel Beckett of the Jon Stewart generation."

Most reviews seemed to focus on the long pauses and the acerbic provocations of the main character. However, on my first reading of the text, I pleasantly found that Eno had written a tightly scripted, very structured piece, in which seemingly disjointed clues come together in quick climax and then a touching denoument.

And, rather than bullying the audience, Eno wants to seed their imagination with natural imagery that is simultaneously beautiful and repellent.

One of the most amazing images that stays with you long after the production: A shy, awkward man, alone in the world, gets food poisoning, vomits and collapses in a park during December. He hears music and stumbles over to the brightly lit public skating rink where happy couples and families whiz by in joyful holiday bliss. He stands at the edge, covered in his own bile.

That image, and many others, resonates on several levels with such deep incisiveness that it is hard to dismiss.

But aside from the structure, there is even more to discover about this play. Given much of the talk around our theatrical blogosphere regarding experimentation and provocation, it was interesting to see that a play considered to be a very fringey and confrontational work, would have such a big, shaggy, lovable-mutt heart at its center.

At first, Diego Arciniegas, a wonderful actor, possessed of a great voice, seems the wrong choice. He is too handsome, and not schleppy enough to be the acerbic loser of the piece. Soon though, you are drawn into the patterns and rythyms of Thom Pain's web. So much for reading the text of the play beforehand.

On that note: I noticed in several other reviews of the play around the country, people have mentioned that when the lights come up, the actor playing the part doesn't seem to be whom they would expect. For instance, Brendan Kiley, in his "live blogging" review of Thom Pain at Seattle Rep, says almost immediately, "He [Moore] is in his 50s, which seems weird, having read the script, which is a monologue about someone who seemed to be an angry young man."

I realize now that these are really funny reactions on our part. Thom Pain could be anybody, he could be any person you pass on the street or he even could be you at either some time in the past or some time in the future.

Loneliness is a bitter disease. Thom is a clever, witty and, yes, attractive person. The key to the play is to realize that this man's life could just as easily have gone in a different direction, but the masterstroke is Eno's resistance of our need to pinpoint the cause of Thom's messed up circumstances. Thom gives us snapshots of somebody's life, incidents that perhaps all might add up to a diagnosis. But in the end, it doesn't seem as if the flawed man we see on stage is at fault for what has happened to him. And neither does it seem as if he is blaming anybody else.

He is the ultimate stoic, smirking his way through life, knowing that at least he is alive. Maybe he will find love, but maybe he won't. And at the core of such an existence we do not find freedom or grand enlightment, we find...Pain.

It is in Eno's commitment to his controlling idea that I find the Isherwood comparison to Beckett so fitting. In the end, the pain of Thom Pain is the pain we all experience, the bleak understanding of existence.

What this lovable loser, this post-modern, Beckett-like tramp would most desperately like for us to understand, is perhaps the only wisdom he can offer: In our time on this earth, sometimes just the simple state of being "Un-alone," might be the greatest joy for which we can hope.

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