According to Walpole, life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think. Though Thom Pain is a man who both feels and thinks deeply, he comes down firmly on the side of tragedy. And yet, while the laughter is never comfortable, as we share the fictitious Pain’s pain in New York playwright Will Eno’s slightly surreal 75-minute monologue, the tragic becomes comic.
The play starts in darkness and only after some fumbling and a confused recitation of a dictionary definition of fear - which itself defines, in far more precise ways, all that follows - do the lights snap on to reveal the man behind the title. With a rigid restraint matched by his outfit of plain black suit, white shirt, black tie and glasses, James Urbaniak’s nerdish Pain brings to mind Michael Douglas’ psychopathic office worker from the 1993 film Falling Down.
There’s the same simmering violence too but, with thankfully no firearms in sight, Pain lashes out with words instead. In a detached and, at times, seemingly unstructured manner, he shares random thoughts, paints disturbing metaphors and, often in the third person, describes key moments from his own life (just the usual story of lost love, “the crippled kid and the electrocuted dog”).
It’s a rant for sure but one of quite astonishing power and arresting detail – the “taste of mascara”, the act of “sharing forks”. And Urbaniak delivers it through pregnant pauses, poignant discomfort, and sometimes barely suppressed rage as he struggles to make general and individual connections with the audience. “I have that shirt” he remarks to one man, “You’re different. You’re lovely” he professes to a young woman, though he doesn’t really believe it.
The truth is, Pain hopes, that we are all the same, like him, “obviously flawed”, and what’s more, that he is “like you, in terrible pain, trying to make sense of my life”. If nothing else, there must be some comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our aloneness surely? Cold comfort it may be but comfort nonetheless.
The subtitle of Thom Pain is (based on nothing). Be assured, that subtitle refers to the perceived meaninglessness at the heart of modern life rather than any holes at the heart of this exceptionally tragic and comic monologue.
- Terri Paddock