Review: Michael C. Hall Probes the Despair of ‘Thom Pain’

The dark and sulfurous chamber of Thom Pain’s mind has been unsealed for public inspection again. Audiences already familiar with Will Eno’s “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” which has been revived by the Signature Theater, may find this Stygian space roomier and less oppressive than they remembered.

Oliver Butler’s new production, which opened on Sunday night, lets some fresh air and even a sliver of sunlight into the nocturnal depths of its title (and only) character’s imagination. And with a handsome, self-assured Michael C. Hall in the role of Pain (a last name that shrieks volumes), he appears as less of a lost cause than he once did.

But while I’m usually grateful for glints of optimism in these cynical times, I can’t honestly say that this transformation is for the good. When I first saw “Thom Pain” at the tiny Soho Theater in London in 2004, its masochistic bleakness lingered on my skin afterward like a toxic slime.

I may have wanted to take a shower immediately, but I was also electrified by the original, full-frontal attack on the audience that Mr. Eno had engineered. It helped that Thom’s despairing monologue was delivered by an angular, snarly James Urbaniak, whose utterances felt as dangerous as a double-edged razor blade in the hands of child.

When Mr. Urbaniak’s Thom crossed the Atlantic the following year for a long Off Broadway run, Mr. Eno (who was born in 1965) was hailed as the theater’s new young messiah of existential despair. In a wonder-struck review in The New York Times, Charles Isherwood called him “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”

If, in its latest incarnation, “Thom Pain” seems to have shed its ability to shock, that’s partly because we have had a chance to become accustomed to the skewed perspective of Mr. Eno, whose later, fuller works include “The Realistic Joneses” and “The Open House.” But this relative tameness is also a matter of Mr. Butler and Mr. Hall’s interpretation.

To begin with, Thom — who spends the play’s 70 uninterrupted minutes wallowing in bitter self-consciousness — has been given more room to roam. Amy Rubin’s set has transformed the Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center into what feels like a limitless construction site, with ladders, tarps and a gaping hole cordoned off with yellow tape.

The show still begins in total darkness, interrupted by the startling flame of someone trying — “trying” being the operative word — to light a cigarette. “How wonderful to see you all,” says a voice.

That’s our Thom, a man who lives to tease with prickly paradoxes and to undermine expectations — his and ours. “Do you like magic?” he asks, once the lights have come up to reveal Mr. Hall in a trim black suit, looking like a department-store mannequin. “I don’t. But enough about me.”

It is not enough, of course. The show proceeds as a sustained, cryptic, circular apologia pro vita sua, in which childhood tragedies and grown-up losses in love are anatomized like corpses in a forensic lab. That confession is sometimes told in the third person, sometimes in the first.

But there’s no question that it’s always all about Thom — unless you believe, as he likes to insist teasingly, it’s all about us, too, and our bewildered, desperate and ever-shrinking time on this planet.

Mr. Hall has established himself an accomplished and adventurous actor, both on screen (“Six Feet Under,” “Dexter”) and stage (brilliant as David Bowie’s alien alter-ego in “Lazarus,” and on Broadway in “The Realistic Joneses.”). Yet his Thom is self-conscious in the wrong ways.

His narrative of self-catechism and self-laceration has the carefully modulated quality of a classically trained actor doing an intense audition piece. Mr. Hall is best in relaxed moments of semi-improvised interaction with the audience. But this Thom is seldom lovably loathsome enough to make us squirm.

Thus delivered, the script now registers as the product of a restless and very talented young dramatist, showing off and playing with the influences he has absorbed. The ghost of Beckett still hovers, but so do, just as visibly, the specters of T. S. Eliot, Edward Albee and Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man.

It’s Mr. Eno’s love for and grasp of rhythmic language that most impress here. Listen, for instance, to Thom’s trying to remember what might have inspired a young boy’s wet dream: “Some fuzzy uneducated image of a girl, saying a word he liked. ‘Voucher.’ Or, ‘Ankles.’”

Thom’s angst may feel a trifle sophomoric now, like something he might grow out of. But his way with words, and that of the man who created him, is already deliciously ripe.

Thom Pain (based on nothing)

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