stage “Do you like magic?” Thom Pain asks the audience on three occasions during Will Eno’s dramatic monologue, now playing in Charlottesville one year after the close of its first New York run. The question is emblematic of the play, for Thom Pain (based on nothing) is all about magic, in the sense of a conjurer’s manipulation of his audience.
Through the meandering course of two arguably intertwined stories—the sad childhood of a lonely boy and the doomed love affair of “grown-up” Thom—the dull-suited narrator repeatedly arouses emotions only to subvert them, sends us down blind alleys of interest and sympathy that end in an insult, a paradox, an inconsequential shift of tone. His promises to hold a ticket raffle and to “make someone else suffer” by plucking a subject from the audience are only the most transparently questionable of his statements. In retrospect, we doubt even the sincerity of his tales, whose themes—the death of a pet, a lost love—seem chosen for their conventional sentimentality.
There is much wry humor in all of this, as well as considerable pathos, since one side of Thom’s ambiguity is the chance that his clowning and self-pity stand for something more universal. How seriously should we take his portentous claim to represent “the modern mind,” encapsulated for Thom by the expletive “whatever”? Is he Everyman or a nobody, punk or poet, spokesman for us all or parodist of all we hold dear? That we can entertain these multiple possibilities is a compliment to Eno’s mercurial writing, admirably realized by actor Bill LeSueur and director Cristan Keighley (who, in their day jobs, are C-VILLE’s art director and a graphic designer, respectively). Together they have crafted a 90-minute continuum that leaps from the tragic to the absurd, the coarse to the tender, with unfaltering energy and focus.
“Based on nothing”? Don’t believe it. A rich awareness of theatrical and literary history informs this complex play. Overt allusions to Shakespeare, Byron, and Dr. Seuss aside, Beckett’s Krapp is a near ancestor of Thom, and there are also reminders of Albee’s Zoo Story, the self-contradictions of Willy Loman, the deliberate bathos in Chekhov, the “nonsense” of Lewis Carroll. Each playgoer is sure to bring different memories with which to convict the subtitle of the irony that marks Thom Pain as a whole.