Thom Pain (based on nothing)
Thom Pain (based on nothing) leads us down a strange road, but Ken Webster's sublime acting makes the trip worth taking
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., Dec. 14, 2007
Thom Pain (based on nothing)
Hyde Park Theatre, through Dec. 22
Running time: 70 min
This is a story you've probably heard, Thom Pain wants you to know. This is something you've felt and heard and seen, since, according to Thom, "We've probably all had roughly the same experience." We've all known the same heartbreak, the same coming-of-age stories, the same struggles, so the specific details are immaterial. This is how the titular character of Thom Pain constructs his cut-up, rambling monologue, offering the tangential tidbits of stories instead of their hearty narrative meat.
Doesn't sound like much, does it? Thom Pain's subtitle, in fact, is (based on nothing). And yet Hyde Park Theatre is reprising this award-winning one-man show with good reason. Will Eno's Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama might frustrate at times, the narrator might grate on you, and his stories certainly hop around, but Thom Pain is ultimately a compelling and affecting piece in spite of and because of these faults. From the get-go, Thom Pain challenges the concept of dramatic narrative. No lights come up, but a voice in the dark asks the audience if it likes magic. As Ken Webster, playing the title role, begins his first story about a little boy and his dog, he constantly defers to the audience's knowledge of boys and dogs rather than supplying details of name, appearance, or location himself. Finishing the story is problematic as well – Thom Pain leaves the main thread again and again in a rambling, generalizing fashion – and you get the feeling that the play isn't focused on the character onstage but the banal world-view he's trying to preach. And yet Thom Pain backs down from even these statements with one of his two favorite phrases: "I don't know" or "Whatever." Whenever Thom produces a profound statement, he immediately backs off it with a flippant remark, quickly retreating behind his shield of irony.
The forward momentum of Thom Pain dances among the first story about the boy and his dog, one of the same boy stung by bees, and one of lost love. Indirectly we gather that these are formative stories of our narrator's past. Thom wants to define the world through these "definitive" tales, yet their meaning is obscure, dotted with strange, shifting details that orbit around the heart of the story. These details are oddly intimate – whether his love still has her tonsils, that she likes to put her legs around his neck – and are all we have to grasp on to. Yet we feel empathy for Thom and this unnamed, undescribed lost love. A great deal of this compassion is created by Webster's sensational performance. Webster won a Critics Table Award for his performance during the original run, and he hasn't let his foot off the gas for the revival. There is a certain economy of motion that I consistently see in great actors, wherein every step, smile, and hand gesture is made with a purpose. Webster's still, composed contemplation during quieter moments contrasts so well to the wry grandiosity with which he attacks the shitstorm he sees the world as.
Is it a play based on nothing? It's difficult to relate what precisely Thom Pain revolves around. Yet when Webster regurgitates all the story scraps and personal pieces at the end of the play, it's a surprisingly sad package that we're left with. A man left ruing things undone. Someone who wants to be remembered as a "man that's trying." This might be an uncomfortable way to look at our own lives – as a collection of scattered details, unfinished tales, and general impressions that don't seem to add up. It's a strange, humorous, and difficult road that Thom Pain takes us down, but with the sublime Webster leading the way, it's certainly a trip worth taking.