Brooklyn playwright Will Eno's Pulitzer Prize finalist one-hander Thom Pain (based on nothing) is a 75-minute work that could be called a thought piece or an exercise in existentialism, or even a Beckettsian exploration of futility. All of those things would be true, but far too restrictive. The title character's musings aren't Generation X-malaise but rather a multifaceted, genuinely sad, sympathetic story. Thom Pain is, at heart, a tale that we can all identify with.
Thom takes us back to a traumatic experience when he was a child in a cowboy costume, playing in puddles after a storm. He remembers when he was attacked by bees. He recalls the time when he had love and lost it. And now he is left, as he admits, only with the phrase that's "the brainless and simpering tolerance of everything, our fading national soul: 'whatever.'"
Thom loses himself in his thoughts, often abandoning his story to tell deliberately unfunny jokes or bring up the possibility of raffles and magic tricks, neither of which ever happen. Thom Pain lives in a world of disappointments, and he likes to set you up for them too.
He's a lone antihero, trapped in his musings on pointlessness, who takes us into his cluttered mind and into the childhood incidents that shaped him — a man who, underneath his seeming coldness, is desperate for connection with other people.
David Mandel turns in a spectacular performance. He's fascinating to watch as he dips in and out of Thom's varying moods and trains of thought. He and director Peter Karapetkov have made an apathetic malcontent likeable, drawing out of Thom the charm, sadness, and "the former child" that Thom mourns. Karapetkov keeps Mandel moving, and every action seems just right. Nothing is distracting, even the rare bits of stylized movement.
Thom asks a lot of his squirming audience: attention and self-scrutiny — as evidenced by a wall-sized reflective surface behind him that slides ominously closer to the audience over the course of the play. There are moments of supreme uneasiness in this play — are we supposed to be in complete darkness? Is one audience member a plant? Is Thom going to come up and talk to me? This confusion and anxiety are symbols of the play's point. Thom reminds the audience that he's going to make us feel like he feels. He establishes in us the same agitation that pervades his life. He brutally reminds us of how we live our lives: "If you only had one day left to live, what would you do?" After commenting on how brave and loving we'd all behave, he then asks, "What would you do if you had 40 years?"
The mirror has moved closer towards us.
"I'm a feeling thing in a wordy body," Thom tells us, and nothing could sum up the play better. Rather than a sprawling, existentialist, self-indulgent, boring, and depressing reminder of how much life sucks, Will Eno's play is a beautiful portrait and a touching story — of Thom Pain and of us. He's the voice inside our heads, put into better words. The development of a life and the presentation of human, universal feelings are wrapped up in an eloquently verbose, creatively structured piece of art.
Here, as Shakespeare famously said, art really is holding a mirror up to nature.