Comedy in recent years has been built more and more on discomfort. Think of the strained silences on The Office or the too-liberal-for-words antics on Portlandia. Now, put that discomfort in the theater and you have an idea of where playwright Will Eno's solo show is going.
There is one major difference between watching a TV show or film where the characters make us uncomfortable and experiencing it in the theater. With a screen we can easily walk away, change the channel, or engage in a distraction to break the tension. That isn't on the table in a live setting, such as the current production of Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) from the Loudmouth Collective at Open Eye Figure Theatre. It's a show with humor, but there's a lot of squirming in the seat as well.
There's no way to escape without being noticed, as was made clear when someone walked out a few minutes into the show (a scripted moment, as it turns out). Getting out of the house at Open Eye essentially takes you in front of the entire audience and the bare stage, where actor Sam Landman is waiting to pounce.
Thom Pain (Based on Nothing)Open Eye Figure Theatre506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis612.643.1231; through Jan. 20
"Au revoir, cunt. Pardon my French," he called out as the man retreated into the cold January night.
The moment was a well-designed one by the playwright, as the discomfort was already in the air, built by opening the show in the dark and then, within a few minutes, showcasing a character who is clearly on the edge. Now, like the victims at a free meal/time-share sales pitch — the rest of the tiny audience was trapped.
And with whom were we trapped? Thom Pain has issues on his mind, and he wants to share them, even though he isn't sure what those issues are or how he should explore his ill-defined fear. Is this an open-mic standup routine gone horribly wrong? The world's worst motivational speaker? A serial killer sharing his story in the minutes before he guts his next victim?
The setting is never clear as Thom goes back and forth through his history, sharing stories of a painful childhood, a bitter and lost adulthood, and a few moments of pleasure along the way.
Eno's writing is oblique at best. Sometimes it is funny and insightful, yes, but a lot of layers need to be pierced to get at the secrets beneath. How much it is eventually worth the effort comes down to the actor. Landman forces us to care, damn it, about this bundle of contradictory emotions onstage.
Whether he is sharing a story about a boy being stung by a hive of bees — and believing they are healing his pain, not causing it — or an adult sick at a skating rink while Christmas music plays, Landman makes it all seem to make sense. The character is discovering these moments as he speaks about them, and the actor perfectly brings that spirit to life.
Landman's friendly and warm persona merges nicely with the character. Thom wants to be liked, even if he has no clue how to go about it. That becomes clear in the most uncomfortable moment of the evening. The house lights come up and Landman wanders into the audience, looking for someone to come onstage. I'm not fan of audience participation, and the fact that there were only a handful of people in the house made me actively fear I would be picked.
Eno, Landman, and director Natalie Novacek expertly mold the evening to reach that point, where an annoying but innocent bit of theater can make the audience sweat. Maybe it's a good thing we never got to see one of Thom Pain's "magic" tricks.