The Edinburgh Fringe Festival hit Thom Pain (based on nothing) begins previews January 25 in New York at DR2 in Union Square. It’s written by Will Eno; performed by Obie winner James Urbaniak, who played R. Crumb in American Splendor; and directed by Hal Brooks. The three talk about their one-person show and each other. Brooks made me promise not to give anything away.
“Think of me, fucking around with your life, and try to smile,” says Thom Pain. He is up onstage, with the unrelenting eeriness of the stripped-down man, eyeglasses, no socks, standing in a space of nothing and thus everything. He describes the piece himself as “our little performance, our little turn, on the themes of fear, boyhood, nature, hate, the nature of performance and vice versa, the heart of man, of woman, et cetera.” How did all this start?
URBANIAK: Two years ago, Will was asked to contribute a short piece to Naked Angels for an evening on the theme of fear.
ENO: I had pretty much written what you see now.
URBANIAK: So Will did a 10-minute adaptation. We knew Hal and we got together and it went really well. Over the course of the next year, Will developed it and then sent it to the Soho Theatre.
ENO: Yeah, I had a Yank friend over in London. I was sure it was not right for them. We flew thousands of miles for a reading.
URBANIAK: On our own coin.
BROOKS: The next day they said they wanted to do it.
URBANIAK: The plan was to take it to the Fringe. We won a Fringe First. I won the Best Actor award. It was really the optimum experience.
Will’s brilliantly circuitous language is always letting us in the door and then shutting us out, but then we get to come back in again. Things like”Picture a bird settling on a branch. The violins are on fire. . . . Picture ash blowing across a newly blue sky. Now go fuck yourselves.” Or “Imagine a gazelle, a zebra, a giraffe. Now don’t imagine any more animals . . . ” Every sentence comes with its own dramatic conflict. Or to put it simply, you never know what he’s going to say next. It must be a lot of fun to play.
URBANIAK: It’s a workout. It’s a two-character play. It’s Thom Pain and the audience. He wants to communicate something to them, but he also wants to keep them at bay.
BROOKS: He’s a great underminer of himself. He’ll go really full in one direction and then back out of it, pulling the audience in.
The piece is so unlike a classic one-person drama relying on revelation of secrets or horrors or sexual ecstasy.
ENO: Those are so dreadful, like books on tape.
I get the wonderful sense of good old-fashioned mid-century angst and Beckett and human struggling against Cold War nothingness and existence and nonexistence, scorpions in a bottle. Or is this an unfair association?
ENO: No. There is almost no one I would prefer being compared to, or rather, if I were going to be second fiddle to anyone . . .
I’m beginning to realize that all great work is about who we are and how there’s not really much that’s there and then we have to play up life with a lot of detail, a lot of commotion.
ENO: [Nods yes.]
URBANIAK: The character doesn’t exist outside the theatrical space.
Pain has no specific references or details. He’s creating himself in the moment that you are seeing him.
URBANIAK: There’s this negative space of his life outside. It’s a portrait of a man in the world and . . .
BROOKS: That’ll get ’em in the seats.
For tickets to Thom Pain (based on nothing) call 212-239-6200.