Read this review. Or don’t. Who really cares?
Well for starters, Matthew Gray, Steven Walters and the rest of the gang at Second Thought Theatre probably hope you do. Or don’t. Probably don’t.
For the subject of this review is their indifference-inspiring production of Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), playing at Addison Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre.
Gray directs and Walters plays the title character in this (just over) one-hour monologue, navigating Eno’s schizophrenically existential piece about a neurotic man reflecting on love, death, adolescent awkwardness and more.
This piece is quintessentially Eno, which contrary to the New York and London critics, isn’t necessarily a good thing. Once heralded as "Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation," Eno’s work is absurd, but not in the same effectively philosophical way Beckett’s was.
Thom Pain, a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist (John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt deservedly won), lives up to its parenthetical postscript. It’s based on nothing. Nothing being the key word here.
A tragicomedy in every sense, Eno’s work is accurately categorized as Theatre of the Absurd. However, unlike many historical absurdist pieces, Pain lacks critical focus and instead often stumbles and bumbles without really ever going anywhere.
Walters performs well as the neuroses-plagued, loser hero. His delivery during the comical parts of the script leave something to be desired, but his transitions into and performances of the minor breakdowns Pain experiences during the performance are jarringly effective. And the fact that the humor doesn’t always land squarely with the audience isn’t completely on Walters.
Eno’s humor is absurd in origin, but really ventures into the flat-out awkward more often than not. Therefore, the funniest bits in the performance are the split second subject changes and non-stop parade of non sequiturs. The rest of Eno’s humor resides in an uncomfortable place that would have to be perfectly delivered to actually be funny. Yet even then, some would not laugh.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Absurdist theater is difficult to nail down because it is, by definition, contrarian. It’s not there to simply entertain. It doesn’t want all the laugh lines, the sequential narrative flow, distinguishable character arcs, etc. It’s as much a reaction to theatrical form as society itself.
To this end, Eno is on the right track and his work does hit on appropriate societal topics. Ultimately though, it’s just lackluster. One is left to wonder why Eno is writing about these topics. What is the point of the character, Thom Pain? Why is he opining to this audience. It’s wholly unclear and therefore a little confusing. He never gives the audience a reason why they should sit through his diatribe. And no amount of solid acting from Walters can really change that.
Are there plenty of humorous moments? Sure. Particularly if you like awkward humor. Are there painfully beautiful strains of tortured humanity, excellently delivered by Walters? Absolutely.
But the whole is not the sum of the parts. Thom Pain is a series of good, funny, touching, painful, existential moments that never coalesce to a functional whole.
And that might be the most annoying and yet achingly realistic aspect of this show. It could be Eno’s point.
Or not. Who cares?