Scared of the Dark
Hello. I´m Brandon, and I am a scared little animal. So are you. Our sales department tells the advertisers otherwise -- that you are all Hip, Sophisticated, and Upwardly Mobile; that we are Intelligent, Professional, and Highly Principled. And that might even be true, as far as it goes. But it ain´t the whole truth, or even the bottom truth, and we know it. Why, if we´d like to get real good and honest with each other, I think we can acknowledge that this entire form of interaction we´re experiencing right now, with me as the Professional Theater Crasher and you as the Interested Culture Maven, is just about the most untruthful thing we´ve ever done. You don´t want to read about theater any more than I want to write about it, and in reality we´re only doing this because nobody´s willing to have sex with us. It´s not a happy thought. I saw Will Eno´s Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) at the Mosaic Theatre in Plantation last week, and this is its territory. Talking about it in any way without calling up all kinds of non-theater-related things -- loneliness, the persistence of memory, the dulling effects of words, the perniciousness of thoughtless everyday communication and all the desire and life it cheats us out of -- would be something like a betrayal of its intentions. Actor Todd Allen Durkin gives its sole character an improbable dignity. That´s the title character, and his very presence feels like a gift; a small clutch of moments when one man is willing to hollow himself out for our edification. Maybe he does this because he´s a scared little animal and he´s sick of pretending otherwise. Maybe he´s trying to pick up chicks. Maybe he´s bored. But no matter why he´s ascending the stage, he is there, and he wants to tell us something.
Thom Pain begins in darkness, with the sparking of a match. When it goes out, Thom reads from a dictionary in the pitch-black, giving us definitions of words that don´t quite make sense. Then he´s addressing us, marveling a little over the fact that we´re here and in the flesh and willing to listen. He finds this touching, but doesn´t quite trust it -- he never says so, but underneath his appreciation of our appreciation, he´s wondering why we´re really here, what game we expect him to play, and how much it´ll cost him.
It´s always impossible to know where directing ends and acting begins, but Thom Paine seems neither like the creation of director Richard Jay Simon, nor like anything birthed from the mind of Todd Allen Durkin. Rather, he seems like an ordinary fellow -- any ordinary fellow -- who, on certain wine-drenched and lonely nights, turns his gaze back on himself and is terrified by what he sees. Thom Pain is a man briefly comprehending his own, once-great potential for living and loving, and seeing all the tiny traumas and compromises that diminished it, loss by loss. Having established that we are here, willing to listen and not likely to go anywhere (most of us, anyway -- it is not inconceivable that a bleeding mishmash of free-verse rhetoric like this one will prompt a walk-out or three), he begins recounting a tale of a hypothetical boy and his hypothetical dog, playing outside after a thunderstorm. The dog dies suddenly, and the boy tries giving it mouth-to-mouth. He is unsuccessful. This is the boy´s first encounter with mortality, with the unutterable sadness that sprouts up like fungus in the recesses of every human life, beyond the places where the assurances of friends and the security of money have power. Lying in bed that night, the boy is no longer the boy he was, and the world is no longer the same place. Recounting this night -- undoubtedly lost in his parents´ memory, but replicated, in one form or another, in all of ours -- Durkin´s reminiscence is a portrait of such naked, affectless sadness that it becomes an indictment of audiences across Florida when they fail to rush the stage and hug him.
But this occurs very near the end of the play. The dog story is the night´s meta-narrative, stretching over Pain´s endless asides and non-sequiturs, bookending memories of lost love, weather, the goodness of life, its harshness, the fine art of disappearing, math, and especially the obscene, crippling difficulty of real empathy. Throughout, Pain is hamstrung by the suspicion that words cannot express what he means; that people have become too blandly comfortable with discourse. Todd Allen Durkin´s body is wracked with the fear that the moment his monologue becomes predictable, it will fall dead in the air, his meanings victims of expectations sleepily met. So he fights against the ordinariness of his own pain, rages against it, trying to eke surprise and glimpses of understanding or pleasure out of descriptions of things often discussed but always dismissed.
He tells us a joke: ¨A horse walks into a bar, and the barkeep says Why the long face?´ The horse says, Well, I´ve got AIDS...´¨ He teases us with a raffle. He demands things of the stage´s lighting rig and is ignored. And he digresses -- endless digressions, ending in rapture or terror or both, long soliloquies that never conclude but expire, Durkin´s synapses hitting dead ends, brick walls, falling into silences that are quickly filled with noise, which itself resolves into stories that decay into digressions, which work themselves into frenzies before hitting their own walls, and then . . .
Thom Pain is a scared little animal, and everybody who watches him for seventy minutes will begin thinking much the same thing about the people sitting next to them in the theater. Afterwards, when the lights come up, people should talk to one another, freed suddenly to inquire after the small and tragic moments that dog the lives of perfect strangers. This is not what happened the night I went, and I was disappointed. That´s why Thom Pain is, after all, only theater. That´s also why we need it.
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