Last week I attended a performance of Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), a critically-acclaimed new off-Broadway play written by Will Eno. Thom Pain is causing a sensation because of its minimalist intensity. It features exactly four elements: one stage, one light, one performer, and one mic.
The performer is James Urbaniuk, who played cartoonist Robert Crumb in the film American Splendor and exhibits some of the same gleefully perverse unpredictability here. He greets us sardonically after the room goes dark, pretending to struggle to get a match lit, and then he starts telling us a story. A young boy witnesses the accidental death of his beloved dog, and then, in an odd reaction the boy himself doesn’t understand, loses himself in the fascination of swirling a stick in a rain puddle. This sets the mood for the longer story to follow (which turns out to be the oldest story in the world): the boy grows up, he falls in love, and the person he loves does not love him back. This painful truth is finally revealed, and the curtain falls.
The concept sounds simple, and it is. What makes it notable has something to do with the chemical combination of a bare stage, a possessed performer burning with a story to tell and an eager audience ready for revelation. James Urbaniuk plays with our anticipation, and even teases us with fake audience participation, pretending to conduct a raffle (there are no winners) and then, in the funniest part of the evening, inviting an audience member onto the stage — to do absolutely nothing.
I don’t know why playwright Will Eno chose to distort the name of a Revolutionary War pamphleteer for his play’s title, nor do I know why we are told this title is “based on nothing”. You’ll have to experience it for yourself to try to puzzle out the answer …