Playwright Will Eno wants you to think about how you are spending the precious moments of your life.
The question is: do you want to spend any of them watching his play, Thom Pain (based on nothing)?
That’s not me being snarky; it’s a question posed pointedly in the play, by an obviously scripted metatheatrical gesture within the first few minutes of this postmodern-existentialist one-man show, in which a “plant” in the audience (here, director Vince Ventura) abruptly walks out. “You know, you might be better off if you had gone with your heart and left, like our friend, now departed, who just left with his heart,” Thom (played with dexterity by Matt Henderson) advises.
And it’s a question that comes back around, again in a rather pointed way, when Thom “volunteers” a hapless audience member to join him on stage and directs her to stand behind him, holding a glass of water. He leaves her there without further instruction for the remainder of the show, only, in the end, to shame her: “I thought you would have left by now.”
These are both clever moves in a metatheatrical, cerebral sort of way, but they’re both more awkward than dexterous in the execution. I suppose we’re meant to feel that we are not exercising our freedom to leave and to use our time in the “brave and true and reckless” ways Thom claims we would if we knew we only had one day to live. But of course the reality of the situation is that if the show were in fact to succeed in prompting a real audience member to walk out, then it would be, by most measures of theatrical success, a failure. Conversely, its failure to drive us out of the theater says less about its success in getting us to reflect on the meaning of our lives than it does on the social pressures that keep us from being rude to hard-working actors.
Henderson’s task in this show is just that – hard – as the roughly hour-long monologue slips and slides between memories of a traumatic experience from his childhood (involving an electrocuted dog and an attack by bees), an account of a recently ended love affair (which he ended before he could be dumped), and countless self-interruptions to muse on the fragility of existence or to praise us for our patience and indulgence as we sit listening to his story. Henderson is at his best with the material when he handles it with a light touch, and his rapport with the audience is confident and wry. His comic timing is also very fine, and his lightning-quick shifts in mood and tone add to both the humor and depth of the piece.
But Eno’s dank, sad-sack character is a heavy lift, and I suspect you need a very different sense of humor than mine to find the comedy in this writing. I’ll confess right here, I’m one of those folks who’s never understood what’s funny about Waiting for Godot, either, and this play is clearly aimed at those who do. Eno’s excavation of existentialist angst is deadpan, knowing, and post-modernly “meta” in the way it reflects upon itself as it writes itself, and as the saying goes, if you like that sort of thing, then this is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to like.
But me? I’m perseverating on that poor member of the audience, who, on the evening I saw it, tried to exercise her free will by initially refusing to come on stage, but was dragged up nonetheless, only to be upbraided later for obediently playing along.
Mr. Eno’s intentions might be to get us to reflect on the absurdity, capriciousness, and fleetingness of life, but the bigger lesson I took home was: don’t sit in the front row.