Dostoevsky staked out a mean little piece of turf for himself in the 19th century with Notes from Underground, a rabidly intense first-person narrative full of loathing, alienation, perceived slights, and the pervasive stench of self-disgust. Now Will Eno takes old Fyodor one step further with Thom Pain, which gnashes its teeth on the theme of the modern mind eating away at itself from within. In Dostoevsky's case, he created a novel that can be put down when the going gets rough. In this harsh 70-minute monologue, escape is a more fraught prospect.
Emigrant Theater stages this local premiere with Casey Greig in the title role (Jessica Finney directs). The opening scene takes place entirely in the dark, with Thom trying unsuccessfully to light a cigarette. Just when he decides he likes the idea of addressing his audience in the dark, however, there's a flash of phosphorous and then the lights come up. Turns out things generally go this way for Thom.
Greig is dressed in an ill-fitting jacket and tie (think temp office worker with a TJ Maxx budget), and a pair of black-framed glasses that accent Thom's oddly autodidactic personality. (His only possession of note is a dictionary: At one point he recalls "scanning ahead to see if the story picks up.") Greig's characterization is tense and flat, as though Thom were fighting to hold back the harangue he might direct toward the audience if he lost control.
The audience, it turns out, has a role to play, having inadvertently stepped into Thom's one chance to try to convey the story of his existence. Eno serves up narrative passages interspersed with starkly humorous throwaway snippets ("Do you like magic? I don't. Enough about me."). Thom's anger emerges in streaks of verbal cruelty toward the house: After trying to walk the audience through a few of his memories, Greig concludes with a weary, "Now go fuck yourselves."
Thom's status as alienated loner is pretty well established from the opening, but Greig slathers on additional layers of ennui by staring into the audience and making excruciating eye contact. At one point he repeatedly hits on, then rebuffs, a pretty girl in the front row (I found myself at one end of a 45-second staring contest midway through. To my surprise, he blinked first. Then he continued staring). At one point last Friday night an audience member walked out; Thom/Greig responded by saying, "Au revoir, cunt. Pardon my French."
In between acts of ontological terrorism directed at the audience, Greig masterfully captures Eno's rich, funny, horrifying prose. Amid the general misery of Thom's existence, a few special moments stand out: the time he was nearly stung to death by a hive of angry bees as a boy, the electrocution of his dog, a vomiting episode in the snow, and a doomed romance that was the closest he ever came to happiness (until he sabotaged it, naturally).
It sounds like a hard-luck story, and it is, but the fact that this play and production are so compelling and mystifyingly vital has to do with the depth of Thom's character, both on the page and in Greig's portrayal. Thom describes himself as "the man waving the flag that says Parking, next to a sign that says Parking": an inessential, invisible, failed young man. Moreover, "He's just like you, or is you, or he isn't and doesn't like you."
He is, in other words, the brainy-looking guy at the parking garage who stares through you when you thank him for your change. He's the after-hours janitor with the Schopenhauer paperback in his pocket, shuffling robotically down the hall. He's everyone who couldn't make sense of the world, or find a way to exploit the tools he was born with. Thom is, finally, the voice of sincerity, laced through with befuddlement and bitterness that the rest of us apparently find this world a workable place in which to live.
It turns out to be worth the discomfort to endure this inventive and undiluted piece of work. Just don't bring a date.