Le Bon Pain
Less is more entertaining in the perversely spare little oddity called Thom Pain (based on nothing), playing in the intimate Bryant Hall at Dallas Theater Center. Clocking in under an hour, Will Eno's one-man one-act unfolds in a nearly bare space (just a red chair nobody sits in and a glass of water nobody drinks). There's no plot to follow, no song and dance. Just words. More than a stand-up routine. Fewer than a conventional play. The title character talks in fits and starts about many topics seemingly disconnected.
Except they're not.
Actor Adrian LaTourelle takes the stage in complete darkness and addresses the audience blindly for a few moments. When we finally see him, looking like a young Powers Boothe in a plain black suit and horn-rimmed glasses, he's trying to light a cigarette. He gives up. "Anyway. Now. I guess we begin," he says. "Do you like magic? I don't. Enough about me. Let's get to our story."
He'll bring up the magic thing a few more times. He'll even enlist an audience member to come onstage for what he says will be a magic trick.
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Except it won't be.
The trick really is on us, on our expectations of what theater is, what a one-man show should be. Just listen and be amazed. The payoff is the magic.
Thom Pain tells two intersecting stories. The main one involves a small boy drawing with a stick in a mud puddle. He has a pet dog that he loves. A tragedy occurs. Many angry bees appear. And the boy, Thom Pain, grows up and never gets over it.
"When did your childhood end?" he asks. "How badly did you get hurt, when you did, when you were this little, when you were this wee little hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words?" A pause. "Isn't it wonderful how we never recover?"
Thom Pain (based on nothing) hit it big in a London theater festival, transferred to Off-Broadway in the winter of 2005 and earned the kind of glowing reviews from the money critics that make New Yorkers stand in a blizzard to get seats. Tickets are much easier to come by at DTC, one of the advantages of having the patience to wait till a quirky show like this makes its way to a regional house.
"Now I think would be a good time for the raffle," deadpans our actor, interrupting a long-winded stream of free associations that borders on Beckett, with a touch of Regis Philbin's amusing forgetfulness during those morning chats with the blond waif.
About a third of the way through Thom Pain, a plant in the audience bolts for the door. "Au revoir, cunt," says Pain.
Alternately angry and apologetic, the storyteller often sides with the crowd. "If I were you, I'd be sick of this already," he says.
Except we aren't. How could we be? This is refreshing stuff performed with consummate skill. An actor stands alone under hot lights and speaks nonstop for close to 60 minutes in a manner that commands the attention of paying customers. "I know this wasn't much, but let it be enough," he says, talking about both the play and the meaning of life itself.
LaTourelle is a marvel with playwright Eno's dialogue. He even gets laughs in the pauses.
"You're all so wonderful, I'd like to take you home, leave you there and then go somewhere else," he says. Eno's jokes sneak up like that. He makes terrible puns, too, like "Love cankers all."
Ultimately, Thom Pain (based on nothing) tries to put a little shine on what the character calls "our fading national soul." The existential riffs are exquisite. "It's sad, isn't it? The dead horse of a life we beat, all the wilder, all the harder the deader it gets. On the other hand, there are some nice shops in the area."
This is the best hour of theater running anywhere in Dallas right now. Without exception.
Raw Vision, headlining Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival, was the best of the 350 scripts submitted this past year, says artistic director Tina Parker. If this is the winner, let's hope the other 349 were discarded properly as hazardous waste.
Leslie A. Wade's long two-act drama plays out an improbable Southern Gothic tale about Royal Rogers, a brain-damaged black artist (Bryan Pitts); Miriam, his violent caretaker-sister (Kelleydianne Smith); and Wallace, the art forger (Ashley Wood) who shows up at their bayou shack with a scheme for making a lot of cash.
For years Royal has lived in a filthy shed, subject to beatings by Miriam as he fills sheet after sheet of poster board with naïve drawings decorated with Bible verses. His sister sells the work to a dealer in New Orleans, who peddles them for thousands to eager collectors. Wallace tries to convince Miriam to let him copy Royal's style to double the output. They'll split the profits.
Interesting set-up. But the playwright doesn't seem to trust his own story. He concocts a sexual relationship between Wallace, who is white, and Miriam--but only after she's hidden his car keys, tied him to a chair and shocked him repeatedly with a frayed lamp cord. Hey, whatever turns you on, buddy.
Think that scene's loud? It's followed by gunshots (one of which almost burst my left eardrum) and a thunder and lightning storm of biblical proportions that seems to go on for a year and a day.
Wade's writing borrows from the huckster-as-hero twist of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker and the lesser Tennessee Williams of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. A lot of it is downright sappy. "Happiness for people like us always comes as a surprise," Wallace says to Miriam.
With characters that are unlikable or simply frightening, Raw Vision needed its actors to soft-pedal some of the outbursts rather than overplay them (they actually wallop each other with sticks again and again). But Wood comes on like gangbusters in his first scene and has nowhere to go energy-wise. If he's not pacing like a caged panther, he's running his hands through a greasy mop of hair. As Miriam, Smith gives a going-through-the-motions performance. She shares no discernible chemistry with Wood.
Pitts maintains strong concentration as the disturbed Royal, a giant of a man with the mind of a child. But the writer doesn't give his character much of a transformative experience even after he is struck by lightning. He's as badly cared for and wounded at the end as he is in the beginning.
It took two directors--Christopher Carlos and Tina Parker--to stage this noisy mess. Nice set by Bryan Wofford, though. Those tall stalks of sugar cane around the shabby house could be hiding just about anything. Gators. Snakes. Maybe a sneaky platoon of rejected playwrights.
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