The Fullness of Nothing

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Nothing happens in Will Eno's play "Thom Pain (based on nothing)."

The title sort of gives that away, doesn't it?

I don't mean nothing happens. I mean nothing you normally expect to happen in the theater happens. Or maybe, everything happens just not in the way that you expect it to happen.

There is no story . . . well, that's not true really. There are two stories: one about a little boy and one about a woman. But they're not acted out. They are not 'stories for the theater' per se. We're somewhat reluctantly told them.

There's no set. There's just one actor and the audience in what we could call an empty theater.

Maybe this will help? Have you ever watched The Office? Remember the wonderfully awkward character Dwight? That's the actor Rainn Wilson. Now imagine that that actor, who's more talented and profound than you might get from TV, decided to do a one-man show. Now imagine the playwright of that show, Will Eno, had once been called "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation." -- I hate to quote someone else's review but that description, while incomplete, really conjures up the world and tenor of the piece.

Okay, have that all in your mind? That's more or less what the 70-minute show is.

Still lost? Good. That's the playwright's hope, I think. Well, not his hope. That's cruel to hope you're lost. Maybe he's playing with expectation. Yes. He's playing with expectation: with the idea of the theater; with what we want from the theater; why we go to the theater; but more than that . . . it's about life. What do we expect from life?

Our protagonist, Thom Pain, asks us -- the audience -- that question more or less.

He says "What if you had only one day to live? What would you do? That's easy. You'd be brave and true and reckless. You would love life and people with wild and new abandon. If you only had a day. What if you only had forty years?"

This is a play about that question, sort of, played out in front of audience with a narrator or anti-hero or protagonist who's both directly connected to the audience and yet somewhat reluctant to be there on stage.

If this review frustrates you - so will the play likely - only it's far better than this and Rainn Wilson is masterful as Thom Pain. The play is constructed of rapidly changing, contradictory thoughts. It's not flashy acting, it's not full of emoting and grandstanding -- but it's stunning.

You can go and simply appreciate the technique of it all. How quickly Mr. Wilson pivots, how deftly he both attracts and repels the audience. How much he does with so little. You can appreciate his grounded stillness and his quirky finger gestures that interrupt that placid calm.

Or you can go and tackle the questions. Imagine the stories, he tells you. Think about the questions of life. Contemplate the theater and why you're there and why you didn't, like that one man early on, leave the theater.

Or you could go and confront it like an abstract canvas hanging on the wall of a museum. The one that inscrutably draws you in. That's what the show's like -- that canvas.

The only really important thing -- is that you go.

Thom Pain (based on nothing) plays at the Geffen Playhouse through February 14.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.

Photo: Michael Lamont