Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Performing Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine-Michael Bettencourt
Michael Bettencourt
Scene4 Magazine-inView

may 2006

Scene4 Magazine-ThomPain

I recently went to see ThomPain (based on nothing), Will Eno's piece on life, the universe, and everything.

I think it's a marvelous piece — deft, painfully inquisitive, elliptical — not your usual theatre with linearity and psychology neatly laid out and emotions pre-emoted for the audience.

But my appreciation was distinctly in the minority the day I went. First, I went to a Sunday matinee, which had attracted a very senior crowd, many of them walker'd and caned. (It was also mostly a Theatermania crowd, I think, many of us trolling for bargains late in the weekend.)  So I think people came not-committed to the show — not necessarily uncommitted, just not with a hanker to see it driving them to come.

There was a fair amount of free-floating complaint going on before the show as well — about this happening during shopping, that bodily ailment, a little too much air-conditioning, how hard it was to get up the steps (remember: senior Sunday), nyah, nyah, nyah.

What I'm trying to parse out is why many in the audience had such a "throw the bums out" reaction to the piece, which is, after all, one man's search to find some meaning in a meaningless world that has given him a fair amount of pain and embarrassment to endure —  in other words, subject matter not that far out of the mainstream.

But someone stormed out about half-way through.  The elderly woman sitting one seat over from me (between us sat a kindly young man), who pre-show wanted to kvetch to me about something, which I put off my reading the boilerplate Playbill, started audibly commenting that "this was ridiculous" and "I can't believe how bad this is" until I leaned across the kindly young man to ask her to please keep her comments to herself and the kindly young man chimed in that she could always leave if she found in unendurable.  She stayed, and stayed quiet — but still…

Behind me, post-show, two women and a man, who pre-show had been one of the free-floating complainers-in-residence, fired up the grievance machines as soon as the houselights came up.  The man, who pre-show had announced to the other two that he had undergone 9 hours of back surgery and that this was the first theater production he had been to since then, picked up the thread as he made his way down the aisle and out of the theatre.  I don't think I heard anyone praise the show or the performance — and was befuddled by the vitriol of the responses.  I just couldn't see what would make anyone turn so hostile to this work of theater — after all, there was a lot of crap out there that got off with barely a slap or a shrug.

I waited in the lobby to speak with the actor, just to tell him how much I liked the piece and liked his performance.  Waiting in the lobby with me was the back-surgeried one — he was taking a rest before trekking out into the streets.  We introduced ourselves.  His name was Peter, and he worked as an ophthalmologist.  We started a chat, and he asked me my thoughts about the play — what did it mean to me.  And I said to him that it was all about the pain he was feeling in his back. And that started us off on this wonderful conversation about pain and suffering in the world and our constant human (and failed) attempt to explain its purpose, meaning, source — in short, a spiritual interrogation.  And suddenly he looked away from me, into that middle distance that signals a pause for thinking, and said, "Now I understand it a lot better."  (It didn't help him that he came into the theatre thinking that the play was going to be about Tom Paine, the Revolutionary war pamphleteer, and what his take was on the world today, a stage version of something like a colonial Williamsburg re-enactor.)

At that point the actor came out, and we both spoke to him, with Peter recounting our conversation and his own slow-cooking realization of what the playwright was trying to say.  The three of us had a nice moment of conversation, and then Peter and I left.

What happened on that stage was real theatre, conventionally speaking. What happened in the lobby was also real theatre — not so much about the play itself as about the connection made through a serendipitous sharing, the isolating role of "audience member" discarded in exchange for two humans trying to figure out something they can carry away from the place that makes the time spent there well-spent, some nugget of comprehension that pacifies the shadows.  I would say that what happened in the lobby was Act II to the conventional play's Act I and that perhaps what separates good plays from weak plays is not how well the work plays on the stage but whether it can prompt, whether it's got tucked away inside it, that extra act for the lobby.  Most scripts don't, which is why they're forgettable and forgotten.  But on this day the small extended post-show run gave us all our ticket's worth, and the take-away felt very good indeed.

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About This Article

©2006 Michael Bettencourt
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt has had his plays produced
in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more of his commentary and articles, check the




Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Performing Arts and Media

may 2006

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