“To be, or not to be?” That was the question or was it? Maybe. Maybe not. Thus is the tone of Will Eno’s contemplative, meditative, poetic, startling and rambling monologue. The play poses life questions. Some get answered and some do not. It is rich in imagery and in contradictions. Rainn Wilson was deftly directed by Oliver Butler, and he gave a superb performance or did he? Yes, he did. This seems to be the perfect vehicle for Rainn Wilson. In this solo performance, the meaning of life is questioned. How do we get through childhood, transition into adulthood, find our footing as working people, experience our first love, and just get through the day? And, does it all matter? Eno’s play addresses these questions and more in an extremely unorthodox, and sometimes uncomfortable way. An existential way. A Mad Hatter way. An unsettling way.
Was it “Theater of the Absurd?” Maybe. Maybe not. As Thom Pain says, “Whatever.” I did not find the recollections Rainn Wilson’s Pain posed absurd. Some were frighteningly real and graphically disturbing. Some were poetic and shed in a gossamer veil of light. Some were nonsensical and funny.”Whatever.”
This review is not going to spell out any plot, if there were one, other than to say, it is an eye opening and startling experience. Eno is a creative wordsmith who paints pictures with words, silences and voids. This is a performance you have to see, feel and think how it reaches you. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. Maybe you will hate it. Maybe you will love it.
If strong language and disturbing imagery bother you, this may not be your fare. In terms of direction and acting, there were several places where Wilson’s voice was so soft, it was impossible to hear what he was saying. This happened when he got still and reflected and when he addressed the audience members in front of him. It happened too frequently. “A few people in our audience walked out. It was not their cup of tea. If you already a reader of Will Eno, you will be captivated. The play had a first read in Soho and moved to the Edinburgh Theater in 2004 and it went to the Soho Theater where it received a Fringe Award. Since 2004, this play has been translated into many languages and has been performed in the United States and throughout the world, and sometimes as in New York, with extended runs.
The play breaks most theatrical conventions. It seems as if Rainn Wilson’s Thom Pain is merely rambling and is doing stream of consciousness prattle which is improvised and spontaneous. But, he adheres to Eno’s scripted material. That is where deft direction comes in. As the rules of theatrical convention are broken, there are long silences, breaking of the fourth wall, and God knows what else.
Pain, as every-man, explains “fear,” and the first traumas a child endures. “I am the complex antihero, just like you, maybe worse.” Why? He goes into vivid graphic detail as he recounts the first story of a boy and his dog. Is it his story? Perhaps. Is this what shaped him into the adult he has become? Hmmm? We close our eyes and we are asked to envision the details he is painting with words. Minds wander into our own psyche and past pains that have shaped us. Minds wander and are snapped back. We get a question and we get a void. All have endured traumas, real or imagined as children, so all can relate, or not. Pain asks, “When did your childhood end”?
He explores the awkward transition into adulthood, the complexity of first love, failures. And, is all of this important? Pain asks, “Is it me fucking around with your life?” “What if you had one day to live?” “What if it were 40 years?” On love, “I disappeared into her and she wondered where I went and……left.” Startling! And, it was hysterically funny as Rainn Wilson’s nebbish loser Thom tells it.
In this play, is life an exercise in futility? At times, yes. Rainn Wilson’s Thom Pain plays with our minds. Eno makes us go into dark places, and explore the void, the paths we took. Was the “boy a mistake who grew into a bigger mistake?” That’s so bleak. And, yes, the play is bleak and frustrating at times.
There are jokes, some funny, and some not. There are light moments, and I found myself giggling hysterically and almost unable to stop. I am not sure what provoked that. Was it nerves, embarrassment? At one-point Pain tells us, “Except for our problems, life is perfect.” “Isn’t it great to be alive?” Was he convinced? I wasn’t.
The play seemed over. The audience applauded. I sat, thinking maybe, just maybe there was more. I turned to my friend and asked, “Is it over?” I am reminded of the great song Peggy Lee sang, “Is That All There Is?” “Well, if that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing.”
“Thom Pain (based on nothing)” at the Audrey Skirball Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte, runs through February 14th. For show times and reservations go on line to www.geffenplayhouse.com or call the box office at 310-208-5454 10856 . There is parking under the Bank of America Building and also on the second level at Trader Joe’s on Glendon.