Saturday, March 14, 2009

"Thom Pain (based on nothing)" : ☼ ☼ ☼

Jonathan Bock is a really good actor. He stands in his rumpled dark suit, with red stains on his dusty black shoes, in the middle of the small, spartan stage at Exit on Taylor and manages, with no props, staging, music, lights or computer programs, to make us so uncomfortable we want to scream. The plot of Will Eno's 'Thom Pain (based on nothing)' is, well, it's about life. No. Death. No. Well, angst for sure, but it's not existential because if this were Camus the character would be speaking French and then he'd drive his sports car off a cliff. That's not what's happening here.

They put the reviewers in the front row. When Bock stood in front of this reviewer, looked him in the eye from three inches away and asked: "Are you happy?" it was hard not to kick him in the shin.

But that would have accomplished nothing. Yes. It would have. No. Just kidding.

When Bock talks about his dog, who is electrocuted, the pads on her paws burnt off, or says, about himself "I'm the kind of guy you haven't heard from for awhile, then one day you never hear from me again," we're, like, whatever. Yes. No.

The narrative of the story, a loosely-knit life-up-'til-now tale of chronic disappointment laced with the occasional doomed pleasure, intrigues us, rather than repels us, because Jonathan Bock is riveting on stage. Even in his long moments of silence, requiring an audience not to cough (some did) or laugh (some did) or shuffle their feet (we all did), we never stop thinking the story is going to explode, take off, veer madly into new territory. We're wrong.

But remember, this is Exit on Taylor. Experimental theater. The author is going for sensation and grit, not plot. At one point Bock calls up a volunteer from the audience. The volunteer is placed in the middle of the stage and we expect him to become, well, utilized. But no. The poor man just stands there as Bock moves away from him and gives his most heart-rending summary of his life. We don't know whether to look at the emoting actor or the dumbfounded volunteer. When Bock concludes his monologue, he looks back at the volunteer and says "Are you still here?"

You've got to love minimalism. Emily Greene gets credit for sets and Wendy Lynn for Costumes and Stephanie Buchner for Lights and Jess Thomas for stage design, but bear in mind there are no sets and no costumes and no lights and no stage design, except for that chair and that table with the pitcher of water on it, never used.

One of Bock's last lines is: "I know this wasn't much, but let it be enough." He may be talking about the play, or his life, or the volunteer's experience on stage. Yes. No. Whatever.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is having a few fits trying to rate "Thom Pain (based on nothing)." It is really good, though it's a bit uncomfortable; it is also too long, though it's short (one hour, no intermission). Jonathan Bock seems born to the part, although he makes us squirm, although that's what the author wants, although we really should have kicked him in the shin.

The last time we came to the Exit, a bum was peeing on our car when we went to drive home. This time: no pee. That's an extra half star at least.

So we're going for Three Stars, half a star more than we thought when we left the theater last night. The play is good enough to suggest that you ought to see it. It grows on you. The more we think about it, the more we like it. See it and tell us what you think.

"Thom Pain (based on nothing)"
Exit on Taylor Theater
277 Taylor Street, San Francisco
Thu-Sun through April 5


Sue T. said...

I had already seen this play on the East Coast (a few weeks ago, before I knew it would be opening in SF), and to be honest, I think I enjoyed it more the 2nd time because I wasn't so taken aback by the confrontations with the audience. I knew to sit towards the back and way off to the side, and would suggest that for anyone who just wants to focus on Bock's wonderful performance and Eno's storytelling.

Anonymous said...

I loved this show, and I agree that it can be uncomfortable, yet in a way that heightens one's experience, and lingers afterward. I felt that the play is so much about trying to engage with an audience -- with the world. (full disclosure: my daughter Marissa Wolf is the director, and I know and adore Jonathan Bock as well, and expect great things of both of them in future!)
In illuminating moments, and then especially toward the end, I felt a genuine connection with this character, this person, Thom Pain --- and much compassion. I would actually say my own capacity for compassion was increased! The play has lingered with me quite powerfully this week.

DAK said...

Both these comments above mirror how I felt about the show. We saw two one man shows in two nights, and although the other came highly recommended and this one did not, Jonathan Bock's performance kept this show in our mind the entire weekend. I think if Bock had played the last sequences with a little more heart and vulnerability he would have grabbed us harder, but he was attempting to stay in that character. Or perhaps he was ordered to by the director. Either way, it's really a terrific show.