Thom Pain is a Challenge, But Patient Attention Reaps Theatrical Rewards

“Do you like magic?” A lone voice out of the darkness sardonically inquires, “I don’t. Enough about me. Let’s get to our story.”  That’s the blistering opening salvo of Will Eno’s Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), the first play of Second Thought Theatre’s seventh season, one that signals an auspicious start of the year, if this gem of a play is any indication of what’s to come.

Charles Isherwood famously dubbed Brooklyn-based Eno “the Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” a tag that haunts every review of his work, but an apt one nonetheless.  Eno emulates the Irish writer’s penchant for pushing boundaries, and shares a similar bleak outlook on societal norms blended with a modern comedic sensibility of the uncomfortable. Eno’s one man play, a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, is a dark foray into the existential and the absurd sprung from his unbutton-down mind.

Directed by Dallas Theater Center Company Member Matthew Gray and starring Second Thought Theatre Co-Artistic Director Steven Walters, Second Thought’s production of Thom Pain is the perfect counterpoint for those who like their coffee black and bitter and their theater demanding, thought provoking, and unsettling in a good way.

That absence of light in the beginning builds tension, placing control in the hands of Thom Pain.  He tries to light a cigarette twice, unsuccessfully for more effect, and then the lights come up. Walters is dressed in a black suit, white shirt, skinny black tie, chunky black glasses, and completely barefoot.  He is tall, yet his portrayal of the tortured and angry Thom shrinks his stature, creating a crimped characterization punctuated with occasional bursts of vitriol or excitement that remind us of his power.

The story, for lack of a better word, of the play is comprised of seemingly haphazard verbal riffs, unfunny (funny) jokes, semi-autobiographical childhood sketches, attempts at hucksterism (fake raffles), and assaults/ come-ons to the audience.  Thom Pain is an avant-garde jazz musician of words, establishing themes and then abandoning them only to hit them up again later when they are half forgotten.  A frustrating exercise, perhaps, for those who are comforted only by linear narratives, but manna for those who relish atonal resolution and the deliciously offbeat.

Walters, with his sad eyebrows and tenor sax voice, plays Pain like a Shakespearean fool: a jokester, a teller of truths, and a manic preacher of the obscure and ridiculous.  He’s an acid-beat poet who understands the agonizing beauty of words. Walters is a writer in his own regard and it shows.  His recent role as the angst-ridden Prince Hal in DTC’s Henry IV also lends flavor to his portrayal.  His stammering, erudite Thom Pain is a cross between Woody Allen and Dennis Hopper’s frenetic photographer in Apocalypse Now.

Thom Pain owns the bare stage, which is populated only with a chair, a dictionary, a glass of water, and a screen with a projected image of splattered paint behind him.  Simultaneously stalking the audience, craving approval, and rejecting it before it is given, Thom is the embodiment of a challenge just as the play is a challenge, yet one that rewards close attention with little nuggets of insight into the human condition.

Steven Walters and Matthew Gray have created a bold theatrical experience: a tale told by a feverish malcontent, full of sound and fury, based on nothing, signifying something special.

Photo: Steven Walters in Thom Pain (Courtesy Second Thought Theatre)

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