When the lights go down at the top of Thom Pain (based on nothing), they go all the way down. As in, blackout. Deep in the dark, we encounter the wry voice of a thirtysomething guy who somehow seems to be speaking from inside our heads. His subject, appropriately, is fear, and the things that are not ours to decide, such as “where to die and when.” The lights bump up on a slight figure in horn-rimmed glasses and a faintly retro suit: Meet Thom Pain (James Urbaniak), the hero of Eno’s 70-minute tragicomic meditation on the great godless raffle that is life, loss, and intermissionless one-person shows. If the character’s name strikes you as a little too on point, much of what he says may do so as well.
Pain’s got a graduate brain, but his heart (like many) is remedial, struggling to keep his mortal awareness from sliding into fetal-positioned self-pity. The show inadvertently echoes this imbalance: Eno’s fragmented stories of relationships—early on there was a dog, later a girl—are not nearly as compelling as his connection with words, or his fascination with the nature of theater as a metaphoric space for the human condition: intrinsically empty, but made rich and strange by acts of imagination. Life is no less meaningful, he argues, just because it’s improvised.
But with such existential stand-up the punchline is always the same, so it’s the setup that has to sustain our interest in (repeatedly) touching the void. And this is where Eno seems to lack the courage of his convictions. At one point, for example, Pain tells us of a boy who “comes and goes, untouched, his childhood running out, as he becomes a foreigner, an immigrant to the place where he was born.” Suddenly he stops and turns to a random audience member: “I have that same shirt.” Is Eno demonstrating Pain’s inability to deal with the memories he’s just conjured or is the play itself copping out? Either way, such smirky asides appear lazy—and all too often. The first barely amuses; by the fifth, we’re way ahead and wondering what time it is. I’m all for a playwright frustrating an audience’s desire to see into a character’s soul, but only if the payoff is worth the wait.
Charged with embodying the play’s gawky tone, Urbaniak manages to track Pain’s emotional syntax convincingly, sniffing out its shifting rhythms like a keen, bespectacled bird dog. The actor delivers an almost transparent performance, letting Eno’s talent and shortcomings reveal themselves directly.
Intermittently genuine, slouching toward ambition, Thom Pain, like its protagonist, ultimately gets in its own way.