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Wrong indictment, wrong audience 

click to enlarge The stand-up  nihilist: Jay O'Berski as Thom Pain - PHOTO COURTESY OF MANBITES DOG THEATER

Picture an over-caffeinated--and venomous--version of those old "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey" spots on Saturday Night Live. Then lose the gauzy graphics and imagine it lasting an hour and a quarter, without intermission. Now, picture a one-person show whose only apparent mission is to embody almost every single failing of that genre--but doing this so smugly, so self-righteously that it alienates the audience infinitely more than it ever entertains it.

Better you should envision it than experience it in the flesh. I refer to Thom Pain (based on nothing), Will Eno's bloated "satire" that redefines unintended irony. Insulting the audience far more than it ever does its chosen target, Thom Pain accurately catalogs (and impersonates) the sins of other solo shows. But instead of using this to transcend--or even critique--those crimes against art and audience, this lengthy, insufficiently clever show manages only to recommit them.

Actor Jay O'Berski dutifully plunged through the mood ricochets, sudden, precious pauses and vocal modulations, and the bizarre plot switchbacks of Pain's clearly overwritten screed. But all the while this show complained of other show's excesses, Thom Pain itself was clearly dying on its feet. A house that remained uncomfortably silent far too long, punctuated occasionally by uncertain or grateful laughter, bore witness not to the simulation of a wretched show, but instead the thing itself.

I was tempted to add "imagine audience members walking out on Thom Pain" in the lead of this review, but that wasn't left to the imagination during Saturday night's performance. Sure, the first woman walk-out was a plant, to which O'Berski's character responded from the script. But was the second, or the third?

Having studied autobiographical solo performance in depth (even engaging in it once or twice, back in the day), I have no argument with Eno's thesis in this show. Yes, one-person shows--particularly those based on autobiography--frequently do indulge in narcissism. Far too many are little more than therapy unwisely put on stage.

Just as often, the reported experience of trauma alone--the centerpiece of so many one-person works--is mistaken for deeper insight or wisdom on it, or any other part of the human condition. In this phenomenon, the romantic--and mistaken--notion that suffering automatically ennobles a person conveniently dovetails into an audience's sometimes latent sense of survivor guilt.

The far-too-frequently resulting discourse from the stage? "I've been through something horrible and you haven't. This gives me the right to drag you through it--and charge you for the privilege." Misery, meet company--or clientele, more precisely.

Yes, yes, your honor: The one-person show is guilty as charged--guilty as hell to boot. The genre commits these and other indiscretions on too regular a basis.

But this point can--and should--be made in an essay that takes less than four minutes to read, not a 75-minute diatribe on stage.

What's worse, at some time in that interval, Pain commits a crime all its own: The object of itsderision clearly shifts from egregious solo performance to its audience.

This would be far fairer a proposition in larger cities, where a ghoulish--but dedicated-- following has coagulated around the regularly scheduled sort of psychic bloodlettings depicted here. Indeed, Pain seems largely written to that group. We all but hear the narrator confronting an audience come for blood with a gauntlet of absurdity and awkward public behavior. Just desserts, in short.

The only problem? Most of Saturday night's crew in Durham didn't seem all that hungry for the red stuff. It only makes sense, since this region has seen, all told, about a dozen autobiographical one-person shows in about as many years--a situation which makes Thom Pain an antidote for a malady that has never plagued this region, and one unlikely to strike it anytime soon.

The only "expectations" most in this audience had involved an evening's entertainment. Instead, too many seemed bewildered, nonplussed, as a show labeled them suckers first for coming and then for staying.

The obvious lesson: Before pulling a stake and a mallet on your audience (as Thom Pain repeatedly seems about to do), it's just good etiquette to make sure they're actually the ones who need it.


Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy's 2006 season began with an entertaining version of Forever Plaid, a show the region has seen at least twice in recent years.

Frankly, we're a lot more excited about this series' next production, which opens this week. As we mentioned in our recent review of the Theater of the American South festival, in last year's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hot Summer Nights ultimately delivered a production of Tennessee Williams worthy of a major regional festival.

This summer, the Kennedy brings the following actors in The Glass Menagerie: regional legend Quinn Hawkesworth, as Amanda, the mother; the accomplished David Henderson as the Gentleman Caller; and Emily Ranii, who has combined youth with sheer brilliance in the past, in the leading role of Laura. The production is directed by Burning Coal Theater's Jerome Davis.

Anyone who knows anything about regional theater is already making reservations. I'd advise you to do the same. That box office number is 831-6060.


Thom Pain (based on nothing)
one star
Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 25
The Glass Menagerie
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy
Opens June 14

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

  • Thom Pain catalogs the crimes of the one-person show, but offers little redemption--or entertainment

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Best wishes & thanks to a fine artist & a real gentleman.

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