As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd go away.
Thom Pain (based on nothing) is a strange, hour-and-some-long monologue. It contains passages about both a sad little boy and a failed love affair, and some viewers have seen it as the story of the monologuist's (pain-filled) life, told with much twisting and indirection. But I don't think that's right.
Watching this production, I don't sense anyone in front of me on the almost-bare stage. Yes, actor Erik Tieze is up there saying words, but I don't see Pain as human. He seems to me a husk, a ghost, a mocking, ever-changing, constantly self-inventing presence — something like the shifting fairy figure in Caryl Churchill's The Skriker. He leads us through dozens of familiar tropes, ideas and images, picking them up, distorting them, tossing them away. He prompts us to feel something — pleasure, empathy, sadness — and then mocks us for feeling it. He creates a specific expectation, then snatches it away. Twice this character announces a raffle, saying that the winning number is on the back of one of our tickets, and his enthusiasm is so manic and all-encompassing that an audience member actually feels the need to tell him that we have no tickets. He offers a glass of water to a woman in the front row, and instantly pulls it back as her hand reaches out. Does she really expect him to supply some kind of sustenance? That's what his conspicuously turned back appears to ask.
In one of the stories, the little boy is drawing in a puddle with a stick when he sees his beloved dog accidentally electrocuted. The circumstances of the death are clearly absurd, but the boy's grief as he lies in bed alone that night, so traumatized that he has wet himself, is touching. Later, the child is stung by a swarm of bees. Although the pain is excruciating, he doesn't associate it with the insects. On the contrary, he thinks they have arrived to help him and rubs them against his skin. Again we feel compassion, even as we register the implausibility of the story. And Pain has a thought to add about childhood suffering: "Isn't it wonderful how we never recover?"
Lyrical passages are followed with directions to go fuck ourselves. Logic gets set on its head. There are several literary references. "Poor Tom's...a'trying," Pain says of himself, referring to Edgar's "poor Tom's a'cold" in King Lear. ("Is man no more than this?" the king says, on first seeing the apparently mad and almost naked Edgar.) Later, parodying Polonius, Pain declares himself "to my own self...untrue." There are scattered nods to Byron's Childe Harol, as well as Virgil: "Love cankers all."
Cancer — or canker — is a recurring theme in this play. So are imaginary animals, and so is magic. Pain asks if we like magic, then informs us that he doesn't; he performs one peculiar magic trick; he talks about a magician who'd ask audiences to pick a card, while holding out only one.
Nothing works for this man. The play begins in darkness, with the scratch of a match and a slight smell of sulphur, but somehow the match never ignites. At one point, he leaps onto a platform stage right and asks the technician to spotlight him. The light bounces around futilely, and to stay within it, eventually he's forced against the wall stage left, the wall he's already identified as his onetime love — its holes her holes, both physical and spiritual.
There are a couple of long, long silences.
Peter Handke wrote a play called Offending the Audience, and that would be a good title for this one. Pain sometimes doles out unctuous praise so convincing that we find aw-shucks grins spreading across our faces, only to mock us in the next breath. When he requests a volunteer and starts slowly scanning the rows, it's intimidating. Now and then he's downright scary: "There are people out there who don't love you," he says, low and sinister. And, to a woman in the audience: "You can throw my things away. I would change the locks if I were you."
This play aborts time because time, as most of us experience it, is one thing following another — that's narrative, that's what keeps us sane — and here nothing follows on anything else. There are stretches where you think you'll be in this place watching this man forever and you feel...not boredom, but a muted, accepting despair. At other moments you're riveted, even though you're not really sure why, because this play has none of the usual things that rivet — character, plot, forward motion.
Bottom line, Thom Pain is brilliant. The language is beautiful in the exact clean, precise, musical way that Samuel Beckett is beautiful. And language is what this play is all about. The one magic trick involves a snotty Kleenex that Pain identifies as the brain of an unborn boy: "Then pile the words on top," he says, and the Kleenex vanishes into his palm. There's much use of the wonderful, seldom-heard word "felicific," which means "intending to cause happiness." It's with language that the guy we're watching — the empty thing we're watching — keeps re-creating himself.
But playwright Will Eno's sensibility differs from Beckett's in one essential way. None of us will ever know why those two tramps are on the road waiting for Godot, but we believe in them. They're consistent and human. Estragon speaks like Estragon and Vladimir like Vladimir. By contrast, Pain is a vortex surrounded by a swirl of words.
The term tour de force has become a cliche, but it applies to Tieze's performance, which, under the direction of Terry Dodd, is mesmerizing, utterly dynamic and wonderfully precise and controlled. When Tieze is called on to express passion, it's raging and strong but purely temporary, coursing violently through his brain and body and then...poof!...gone. The play, on the other hand, will stay with you.