Thom Pain (based on nothing); The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
By Myron Meisel
Will Eno’s Acerbically Funny Thom Pain (based on nothing)
One can tell that the new year is beginning for theater when encountering two solo performances in a single week, thereby already making a heavy dent in my allotment of the form. (Without some effort at resistance and selectivity, one can overreach the limits of tolerance well before summer.) Luckily, both these contrasting exemplars are exceptional entries, well worth redeeming your ration coupons for.
Will Eno’s acclaimed Thom Pain (based on nothing) arrives in Los Angeles after a decade of playing virtually everywhere else. As perhaps the only person in this town who actually travels to New York to get away from the theater (privileging instead friends, relations and music), nevertheless I could hardly resist the chance in 2005 to see James Urbaniak perform the piece at the Union Square theater just up the block from where my younger daughter was dropped off at her first-year NYU dorm.
Eno’s monologue was a hit, yet a goodly portion of the audience in 2005 was audibly bewildered by it. Teetering on the fulcrum equidistant from Beckett and avant-standup, the hard-edged lyrical spasms of borderline parodic despondency sowed palpable doubt as to whether or not it was funny or bleak, as though both could not coexist. The New York house was as uneasy in its way as Eno’s abrasively hapless, less than sympathetic, eponymous character.
Fast forward a decade of now culturally dominant attitudinal irony, and the Geffen opening night crowd rolled perhaps too easily with the cryptic outbursts of acerbic alienation. Casting a popular and garlanded comedy actor like Rainn Wilson (who I had only glancingly encountered before in his small role in the movie Juno) unquestionably cued the spectators to be receptive to the humor underlying the rather cruel quandaries of the indistinct man’s existential perplexity.
By contrast, Urbaniak’s almost avian asperity missed none of droll marks but yielded the wit grudgingly, shrouded in dread. Thankfully, Wilson exhibits the discipline and control not to reach for laughs, though they came aplenty. Director Oliver Butler orchestrates the craggy rhythms and thorny tone with a rigorous mastery of pitch, with Wilson a virtuoso instrument. I especially relished the way he can, seemingly at will, appear alternately too large and too small for his pedestrian suit.
Eno’s sly screed retains its innate mystery, rich with eloquent pauses, nuggets of paradox, with an aftertaste of bile, its rhetoric suggestive of European absurdism in an American vernacular. When it cuts, it’s to the quick, and for all the affectation of abstraction, it can be remarkably specific with its uncanny ear: “I hate your breathing,” for example, was one of my father’s pet derisions.
Eno zeroes in on our national fear of blame and abhorrence of awkwardness without passing judgment, leavened with mock self-seriousness. But time has leached a lot of the originality and subversive iconoclasm from the text; it’s grown accessible, even familiar, in its once difficult stratagems. How dispiriting that a cautionary, transgressive work could come so quickly to measure our bemused comfort with the reflection of our own despair?
Finding Heartwarming Affirmation in Appalling Tragedy — The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
If Thom Pain needs must remain isolated and alone, writer-performer James Lecesne conjures up a community in his The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, a guest production in a brief run at the Kirk Douglas after a successful New York run, winning this year’s United Solo Special Award. Lucesne remains best-known for writing the dramatic short Trevor (directed by Peggy Rajski), which shared the 1994 Academy Award in a tie with Peter Capaldi’s Frank Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which, more importantly, made possible The Trevor Project, which pioneered services for at-risk gay youth.
This current project traverses themes consistent with Trevor’s, of a flagrantly flamboyant 14-year-old fostered by a relative living at the Jersey Shore. Lecesne, who plays a panoply of parts, narrates the story as Chuck DeSantis, a local detective who investigates Leonard’s sudden disappearance and discovers his battered body in the lake. The tale in itself remains familiar but is told with such swashbuckling panache and unabashed glee at impersonation that the experience achieves some credible pathos both despite and because of its incredible dexterity.
As DeSantis runs down leads, Lecesne also incarnates the witnesses the detective interviews, each of whom delivers a monologue or set piece of his or her own. It’s structured very like an episode of the 1960’s series “Burke’s Law,” which each week featured a host of guest stars in plummy cameos, although the twist here has Lecesne chewing every juicy bit. He deploys timeworn techniques of condensed caricature to establish a type, yet evades cliché by then finding the core of humanity in every flawed one of them.
(Serendipitously, the next night at REDCAT, I watched Lewis Klahr’s most ambitious stop-motion collage feature, Sixty Six, itself frankly deploying cutouts from a “Burke’s Law” tie-in comic book of the period.)
But the whodunit and the thespian display soon defer to the development of the unseen Leonard, who can no longer speak for himself but instead must be spoken for, or about, by those who encountered his extraordinary personality, generous sensitivity to others, and uncompromising determination to be himself (and to know who he was at an age where the very question prompts consternation). There’s a weakness for apotheosizing Leonard as a saintly martyr to the hatred bred of defensive insecurity and the drive to hide oneself within group conformity; even those who most love Leonard implore him to “tone it down” for his own well-being, which he with apparent great joy will not deign to do.
Still, as a fable calculated both to caution us about complacency and enrich us with an appreciation of the glories of uncompromising difference, it makes for a righteous entertainment, expertly concocted and executed. Although it mostly adheres to the norms of tour-de-force display and hews to an unadulterated lack of ambiguity, it disseminates positive values in an emotionally accessible, heartwarming affirmation, despite its appalling — and all too persistent — tragedy.
Both solo shows represent condensed evenings that nevertheless concentrate a maximum impact. No matter how brief, they provide satisfyingly full evenings’ transport from the humdrum, however much they make traffic in its materials.
Thom Pain (based on nothing), Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through February 14. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: One hour, five minutes.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m.; through January 31. (213) 972-4488, centertheatregroup.org. Running time: One hour, eight minutes.