Just as it’s important in a restaurant never to blame the waiter for a mistake the chef has made, in the theater, one should never blame the actor for faults in the script. So I’ll separate my comments on 12 Peers Theater’s excellent production of Thom Pain, from the 2004 play itself, written by Will Eno.
Thom Pain (subtitled “based on nothing”) is a one-man show, delivered as a stream-of-consciousness monologue that may or may not incorporate audience participation — depending on the audience. Listening to it is kind of like listening to a Bob Dylan song from the 1960s. Not a lot happens, but you want to remember a lot of the lines.
Matt Henderson is vivifying as Thom Pain, and keeps the energy percolating for the duration of the 65-minute single act. Henderson looks like Napoleon Dynamite in a business suit telling his life story at an AA meeting. Is he serious? Is he really angry? Should we respond to him when he addresses members of the audience individually? These are all wonderful questions which a critic shouldn’t answer.
But this is engaging, vibrant theater, well-directed by Vince Ventura. Experiencing the performance is like getting an injection of the alacrity that drama theorists like Antonin Artaud and Peter Brook crave.
However, as commentators have pointed out, the style of the text is very derivative of Samuel Beckett, and it often feels like a character from one of his works is saying the lines. Many are poetic: for example, an electrocuted dog “flew like some poorly thought-out bird.” While others are silly: “Love cankers all.” And there are so many cultural references — from Byron to the Beatles — that at times the piece almost drowns in its own cleverness.
But the play’s deepest flaw is its self-indulgent vulgarity. In addition to several gratuitous F-bombs, there are multiple instances of the C-word (shouted, crassly, at the audience).
Too bad Eno couldn’t have taken more of a lesson from Beckett who, when he invoked the harshest epithet in Waiting for Godot, used another C-word, “Critic!” Now that hurts.