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Welcome to The Void

Rep Stage Production Takes Nothing Quite Seriously--Maybe

ALONE TOGETHER: Timothy Pabon holds his own.

By John Barry | Posted 4/9/2008

Thom Pain

By Will Eno

At Rep Stage through April 13

Thom Pain is based on nothing. Not nothing in the way Seinfeld is about nothing, where everyone gets the joke. Not nothing the way that Sartre talks about it, where you have to understand what "being" is to begin with. It's not a play about nothing that offers something to think about in the end. It's not nothing that started out as something but grinds slowly to a halt.

It's about the way we respond to nothing. Armed with an unabridged dictionary, a match, and a cigarette, Thom Pain (Timothy Pabon) walks out onto the stage's darkened black box at Howard Community College and starts to chat. He asks the audience if it knows what clothes he's wearing. By the time the lights go up, you're expecting something truly wild, but he's dressed more or less like an average theatergoer. And that more or less sets the rhythm for the play. He blindfolds us, takes us to the edge, tells us to jump--and nothing happens. Then he takes us through childhood trauma, memories of a dead dog, a rude sexual awakening, memories of a dead-end romance--which may or may not have occurred--and anything else he wants to talk about.

Lowell, Mass.-born playwright Will Eno, now based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is difficult to pigeonhole, but he's taking on the mantle of the 1960s modernists. You know how in Edward Albee or Harold Pinter plays you're always waiting for the crazy rant? Here Eno begins with the rant and keeps it up for 90-odd minutes. And to do that he puts one actor in the middle of the spotlight--a pretty good actor, at that--but nevertheless an actor, who acts as though he doesn't know what's coming next but actually does. It's not improvisation, but an improvement, maybe, on improv: a staged play that keeps threatening to veer out of control.

Thom Pain isn't conventional, but then, it's not so self-consciously experimental that you assume that everyone else there understands what you don't. If you do feel you're being left out, and you might, then you're welcome to leave. Audience members did just that, although you have to wonder which ones did it arbitrarily and who really were offended. One couple got up after an extended exchange with the actor, and the gentleman explained, "I didn't come here to be fucked around by some asshole." That sounded genuine.

Eno wants us to realize, maybe, that in this 21st-century wasteland, whatever epigrammatic bits of wisdom or poetry he drops will fly south like geese in the winter. So, yes, Thom Pain is about the present tense, just like a tightrope artist without a net is. The play isn't trying to get us to laugh, or even to applaud; the playwright is looking at us, wondering whether to laugh at us or tell us what he really thinks. What he comes out with isn't a story or a play; it's a voice. It's probably a voice we've all heard but haven't listened to carefully enough. It's quirky, intelligent, but really feeds, or devours, a few stark images. It's halfway serious, or seriocomic, spasmodic, and passionately indifferent. The sense of irony is finely tuned; the voice is trying to bring us to points where we expect something to appear--love, sentiment, death, wisdom--but for reasons we can't fathom, it is ready to flip the bird whenever we extend our hands.

Being earnest feels weird, particularly after seeing a play in which the actor so baits the audience, but Thom Pain was the most enjoyable play I've seen in Baltimore for a while. And with a mediocre actor, it could have been awful. Pabon briefly energized a production of Eugene O'Neill's sleepy Ah, Wilderness! at Center Stage last year. He radiates controlled energy and, most important, confidence, never demeaning himself to the point where he's just satisfying us. The director, Lee Mikeska Gardner (well supported by lighting designer Harold Burgess), never lets the laughter get comfortable or the minimalism look staged. The audience did pretty well, too, whether they departed early, left when they were supposed to, or started snoring, like the guy behind me. I realized that Thom Pain is serious when, toward the end, Eno offered this bleak observation: "You expect something to appear, and all that's here was what was here before." Or, to quote the famous late-'70s British music-hall philosopher: Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

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