In 2011 Signature Theatre launched its Residency Five program, which committed to produce three works by one playwright within five years. Within the ever-shifting whims of the New York theater scene, it constituted an extraordinary artistic commitment. Of the first batch of playwrights selected, not all brought its timeline to fruition – we hardly knew ye, Kenneth Lonergan and Regina Taylor – but one who did was Will Eno. His three works demonstrated the program’s brightest potential – a returning audience not only watching Eno grow and deepen as an artist, but participating in that process.
Thom Pain (based on nothing) is not part of Eno’s residency, which included Title and Deed and The Open House and concluded with Wakey, Wakey last year. Instead it falls under Signature’s Legacy Program, which can offer a different kind of thrill – the rediscovery of works which were either underappreciated in their time or offer new resonances today. Signature’s recent productions of “Master Harold”…and the boys and Big Love, for instance, placed these potentially dusty works under a careful contemporary lens.
In the context of all this, Signature’s current revival of Thom Pain is a strange beast. The play was hardly unappreciated upon its original run, a critically heralded production (starring James Urbaniak) which ran seven months and catapulted Eno to success. Since Eno concluded his Signature residency only last year, it seems oddly early to run back to his beginnings. Of course Signature made the rules of its own programs and can break them as it likes, but it seems a fair question – why are they reviving Thom Pain now?
I ask ‘Why?’ as an Eno enthusiast, who is never unhappy to find his words on New York stages. In my theatrical memory, I can conjure the devastation I felt stumbling out of The Open House as vividly as my pure joy skipping out of Wakey, Wakey. Both plays are deeply concerned with death, and confront mortality with a brutal, unsentimental honesty. Both productions also found uniquely theatrical approaches to this theme – whether the mind-bending double worlds of Open House, or the decked out Powerpoint presentation of Wakey, Wakey.
In this context, Thom Pain feels like a proto work, a precursor to deeper observations to come. All of Eno’s trademark concerns are there – death, existential despair, disconnection from the world and from one’s self. If this were my first experience with his work, I might have been more struck by the play’s observations. Instead they felt familiar, if still witty and probing. His playful toying with language is as enjoyable here as ever. But the frequent asides and digressions, while fun, are a technique that Eno wisely came to use more sparingly.
Another possible reason to do Thom Pain today is because a great actor wants to tackle the role. Michael C. Hall is such an actor, without question. He is also plenty experienced with the author – his turn in The Realistic Joneses, Eno’s Broadway debut, hit perfectly on the menace underlying Eno’s seemingly benign words. Hall seeks a similar darker edge in his portrayal of Thom: when he moves through the audience seeking a volunteer, his cold presence feels scary up close. Yet, for the most part, Hall registers an emotional blankness, giving little sense of the man hiding behind Thom’s verbal gymnastics.
It’s easy to fall into the ‘blankness’ trap when performing Eno. Many of his works, Pain included, call for a bare stage and sparing direction. He is also clear, however, that his characters should be anything but blank. Amidst a barren, monochrome world seemingly devoid of meaning, they are brimming with life, rich with contradiction, desire, confusion and fear. In a recent interview, Eno said of this play: “Thom is trying to tell his life story and is constantly being interrupted by the fact that he’s alive.” If anything Hall’s vibe here is funereal, as though Thom is speaking to us on his way out. That’s one possible reading of Eno’s work – but not one that brings life into the room.
Oliver Butler’s production does not help in this regard. His staging just sort of happens, washing over the audience like a gentle breeze. Butler also seems to struggle against Signature’s Irene Diamond space, a beautiful theater that is perhaps a little too elegant for this play. Butler and scenic designer Amy Rubin try to introduce some roughness into the space with netting and tarps that suggest a crumbling auditorium. But they can only cover up so much.
“I know this wasn’t much, but, let it be enough,” Thom entreats his audience near the end of the play. The point should be that Thom’s story is more than enough – it is humanity, in all its beauty and pain. But honestly, I left feeling like not much is happening at the Signature right now. By coincidence, Pain is the only show currently running in the theater’s complex. Amidst the dead quiet of this often buzzing artistic space, you may wander out of Thom Pain feeling like you were barely there at all.