Chicago Theatre Review
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Thom Pain
It was maybe 10 minutes into Theater Wit’s clever, occasionally dazzling staging of Will Eno’s one-act, one-man play “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” when an audience member abruptly stood up and, with as much noise as possible, marched out of the theater with impressive rapidity. Lance Baker, who won a Jeff award in 2007 for his original take on Eno’s play, rolled with the disruption masterfully. Playing a character that can be best described as failure, albeit a ruthlessly entertaining failure, Baker’s eyes followed the audience member as he exited the theater, and then, after the theater doors slammed shut, he said, “Goodbye…cunt,” to immediate laughter from the audience. At the time, it seemed like a masterful ad-lib, an exquisite extension of a character Baker is clearly, intimately familiar with, but as the play developed, and as we crept further and deeper into the warped, ceaselessly unreliable mind of Thom, I began to question that initial conclusion. Was the audience member a plant? Is this a familiar aspect of the play? Or was Baker really just ad-libbing, stretching the material to suit his spontaneous needs?
The truth, as is eternally the case with “Thom Pain,” was somewhere in between, always gyrating, always hovering just outside of perfect comprehension. Staged simply by Sarah Luse, brilliantly lit by John Kelly, and directed with great patience by Jeremy Wechsler, “Thom Pain” truly lives up to its subtitle, offering a monologue from its title character that covers, in a loose biographical fashion, everything from magic tricks, to pink elephants, to failed seduction tactics, to sex, to bee stings, to electrocuted dogs, to doomed romance, to even a mock lottery with the audience that almost materializes, before Baker pulls the concept back and, as he repeatedly does through the play’s 65-minute running time, refuses to give in to the audience’s expectations.
If this sounds like a maddening approach to drama, you might be half right, but in the hands of Eno and Baker, the results are nothing short of magic. There are few things in theater as uniquely thrilling as the extended monologue show. When done right, the effects are mesmerizing, with the actor opening their world before you and allowing you in, step by precarious step, into their conscious mind. And because the extended monologue is so rarely done right – outside of Spalding Gray, Mike Daisey, and Anna Deavere Smith, not many performers immediately come to mind with true mastery of the form – that makes it all the more thrilling to see a work like “Thom Pain,” where the freedom and ecstasy of the form is fully explored.
I use the word “ecstasy” both literally and figuratively, because I first saw Baker in the one-man show environment earlier this year when he performed Mike Daisey’s wild, controversial play “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn. Though a faithful, engaging staging of Daisey’s play (and you did yourself a disservice if you missed out on it), it was sometimes difficult to remove yourself from the fact that Baker was not Mike Daisey, particularly in how closely the narrative was based on Daisey’s gonzo, rotund persona.
In “Thom Pain,” though, there are no such barriers. With his wrinkled suit and tie (clever costume design courtesy of Alexia Rutherford), floppy hair, and large eyes set behind narrow spectacles, Baker looks the role of the disheveled, misleading narrator to perfection, and his acting in the role is nothing short of a tour-de-force of verisimilitude. Speaking his lines in a slow, lumbering manner, Baker had the audience in the palm of his hand, as he perfectly evoked many of the images of his anecdotes (his gestures of a young boy – possibly a young Thom – reaching into a bee’s nest will stick with me for days) and engaged the audience playfully and, sometimes, with delightful condescension.
It’s not all fun and games, though; at key, precious moments, whether it be an elongated pause, a shocking outburst, or bouts of tears, Baker slowly, subtly allows the loneliness and desperation and sadness of Thom to seep through the cracks, to overwhelm the vulgar, vain shell he so dearly clings to – and for the truth, no matter how evanescent, to emerge. And of course, credence must be given to Eno’s writing, which is erudite and unpredictable in equal measure. Unfairly described by the New York Times as “Samuel Beckett for the John Stewart generation” (a cute but vapid description), Eno’s work on “Thom Pain” was considered a breakthrough when it originally premiered in 2004, and it’s easy to see why. Bold, original, and most important of all, entertaining without sacrificing its artistic leanings, “Thom Pain” is the work of a writer finding his voice.
“Someday, you’ll have 30 seconds to live,” Baker says at the play’s halfway mark. “Think of me.” Because of Baker and Eno’s talents, and the complementary efforts of Wechsler and co., that’s an absolute certainty.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented July 2 – July 27 by Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont, Chicago, IL 60657
Tickets are available by calling 773-975-8150 or going to www.theaterwit.org
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.