The contract between an audience and a performer in the theater typically involves an unspoken but very serious agreement: Don’t come after me, and I won’t interrupt you. Certain genres, such as stand-up comedy, magic, hypnosis, and timeshare sales pitches throw this convention out the window, but they tend to define themselves as outside the realm of conventional theater. In Thom Pain (based on nothing), a one-man show by Will Eno and featuring Mitchell Thomas, these reliable distinctions melt away, and the resulting experience offers not just a one-man show that’s about one-man shows but also a sense of being in an audience that’s somehow about being in an audience.
There’s also a story, or rather, three of them. One involves the death of a dog, another is about the narrator being stung by bees, and the third looks at the narrator’s relationship with a woman. The details of these tales tumble into the piece haphazardly, without a clear relation to the overall shape of the performance, which pulls structure from the many ways that the script creates and then thwarts audience expectations. “Do you like magic?” the narrator asks at several points in the proceedings, each time answering his own question with another variation on his original irony, which is, pause, “I don’t.”
The fourth wall between the performer and the audience collapses completely in two segments, neither of which I will disclose here for the benefit of those who might see the show this week at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Some of the language is pretty crude, and the character Thomas creates is hardly likeable, but beneath the surface of this damaged soul there’s a yearning that carries through. As he puts it himself toward the end of the piece, “I tried.”