In Dialogue: Stepping into Darkness with Will Eno

PROLOGUE: (Enters, in darkness. Footsteps. Pause.) Darkness. Footsteps. A little Pause. (Pause.) It’s quiet and dark. But you knew that. (Pause.) I could leave it all alone. I could let us shudder by ourselves. Leave us uncomforted by the shaky fiction of anything shared, of any common story. I could let us wreck ourselves in the dark, shiver closer to death, slowly, unnoticeably, instead of making such a big production out of it. But I won’t. So, savor it, the dark. Like everything it’s ending. Yes, as for the darkness, at least: The End.

Lights up.

Hello. My name is Prologue. What else would it be. Welcome to a play whose title is “The Snow Romance.”

But of course, it isn’t. It’s a play whose title is The Flu Season and it’s by Will Eno, whose latest play THOM PAIN (based on nothing) is enjoying an extended run at DR2 in Manhattan through the end of the year.

Will Eno often writes plays that are not so much about the theater as they are conscious of it. He presents us with characters who are aware of the artifice of their situations— of themselves even— and yet who are trying desperately to break through that convention to something more…or at least something different. He has written characters with names such as Prologue and Epilogue and plays with titles like TRAGEDY: A Tragedy , King: A Problem Play , Intermission , and Mr. Theater Comes Home Different . Recently, I suggested to him that it sometimes seems as if he was born in a theater, raised in a theater, and now he writes plays set in a theater.

“No, strangely, I was born to parents and raised in a house.” Aha. We agree it’s more or less the same thing.

“I really have that sort of snotty, sullen teenager’s reaction to a very naturalistic play,” he explains later: “Who are these people and why are they talking to each other? That’s not a living room.”

THOM PAIN (based on nothing) is a play about a man—Thom Pain—who coincidentally shares his name with the famous American patriot and skeptic, but who is, in fact, a very not famous American loser and skeptic who has for some reason entered the theater in order to tell the assembled masses all about his life. Sort of. As he announces dryly from a completely dark stage (a home, of sorts, for Eno), having finally given up on his thrice-failed effort to light a cigarette:

Anyway. Now. I guess we begin. Do you like magic? I don’t. Enough about me. Let’s get to our story. Do you want a story? Do you need to see me to hear me? If so, sorry. Not yet. I’m afraid you’d laugh at my native costume. Promise you won’t laugh. I know you won’t, friends, I trust you won’t. But not because you promised.

And later, now fully illuminated, at least physically:

As for our story, if you’re lost at all, you’re not alone. Don’t think I’m somewhere out ahead, somewhere anywhere, with a plan. I’m right here beside you, or hiding behind you, like you, in terrible pain, trying to make sense of my life. I’m just kidding. You probably are alone. Or, I don’t know.

Thom Pain is a man with a story to tell, only—though he leads us with almost sinister control through fragments of several—he can’t quite decide which story it is, and he’s a little fuzzy about the details and, frankly, is feeling a little ambivalent about the whole thing:

No, I don’t know, either. No bother. Or – to employ the popular phrase we use today to express our brainless and simpering tolerance of everything, the breakdown of distinction, our fading national soul – “whatever.”

Casually.

I’m like whatever.

Pointedly. As if a grave admission.

I really am like whatever.

Maybe now is a good time for something of a grave admission of my own. Probably not, but I’ll do it anyway. I see myself in Thom Pain. To those who know and still manage to love me, I am a notoriously difficult audience member (whether I’m watching a play, or not). I hate nearly everything. I hate most theater I see with a snarling, spitting, acidic sort of hatred that often seems to be the only thing that brings me real joy. It is this joy Thom Pain seems to find in his utter contempt for life; his life, as well as life in general. He is a confused, indecisive, fragile human being living an absurd, uncertain existence—but he’s milking it for laughs. Or at least trying to.

Do me a favor. If you have a home, when you’re home, later, avoiding your family, staring at the dog, and they ask you where you’ve been, please just don’t say that you were out somewhere watching someone being clever, watching some smart-mouthed nobody work himself into some dumb-ass frenzy. Please say instead, when you don’t say anything because no one asked you, that you saw someone who was trying . I choose the word with care. I’m trying .

Italics are mine. That part really got me.

Well. Moving on.

I ask Will what he feels is the connective tissue between his plays, the common thread. “In general terms there’s a strong form that gets established quickly which eventually proves too weak to contain the feelings that develop within that form so that there is always—in some way of saying it—an effort to put on a brave face that ultimately fails. And I mean that in large general ways and not so much in general character ways.”

By which I think he means that his plays—not his characters, but the very machinations of the plays themselves—put on a brave face that ultimately fails, and it is that failure, that systemic breakdown, which crucially reveals the truth of the play. THOM PAIN is very simply about a man a bit down on his luck who enters a stage in darkness and begins to speak to an audience. The form is familiar and easy to enter into—it’s a stand-up routine, a sermon, a sales pitch, a stump speech. Thom Pain tells jokes, makes us laugh, entertains; he tries to teach, to inform, to reach out. He’s in control, he works the room, we are safe in his hands—however shaky they may be. But over the course of the event, it is clear that slowly Thom Pain, the fiction that he is, is beginning to lose the thread, and from there the form spins slowly out of control, to reveal the deeper feelings of the play—not just the character—beneath.

The Flu Season , Will’s earlier play, which had a very short run in New York but opened in London (as have all his plays thus far) to rave reviews, has a similar kind of disruption of conceit. In that play, a simple end-of-love story, Prologue and Epilogue are the narrators. Will’s notes on their characters are revealing, I think.

Prologue: A Narrator. He should differ physically from Epilogue. Perhaps he is large, and Epilogue is skinny. Where Prologue is warm and tender, Epilogue would be cold, might even have a flair for a seductive kind of cruelty. Both narrators remain discretely on stage, except where noted. Though Prologue is not aware of Epilogue, the latter is aware of the former.

Epilogue: As Above

Note: Special attention should be paid to the casting of the roles of the two narrators. Ideally, it is through them that the feelings of the play pass, on their way to the audience. Through its relation to the narrators and the narration, the audience is meant to feel those feelings – attraction and ambivalence, desire and self-rebuke – that are felt by characters in the play. In this way, the audience is meant to participate in its own love story, and not just watch someone else’s. In this way, the audience may feel tenderness, loss and disappointment, in a new and improved way.

But of course by the end of the play this perfectly sensical world of Epilogue knowing all, and Prologue knowing only so much—the two combining their efforts to tell a simple little tale about love—is totally high-jacked by the feelings of the play coming forth seemingly unaided, uncalled for, and in some ways unwanted by the characters who inhabit the play.

I ask Will what he is working on next; anything new in the pipeline, what’s on tap, etc.

“I’m working on a…uh…” A long pause. “I’m working on a play.”

And indeed in a Will Eno play, the play really and truly is the thing. The convention is the subject and the matter of his world. It is never a question so much of what it is about, of the relentlessly logical narrative of the piece, the well-plotted jump from lily pad to lily pad in search of some ultimate “Truth”. It is rather the trying that defines his world; and not so much the final illumination that he is after, as the dogged search for it. The audience is meant to feel the pulsing, sweating, semi-hysterical life of the play itself –character, plot, and setting are simply means to an end.

In the end (at the end? about the end?), I have to agree with Epilogue when he says:

Life. Writing. Try again some other year. This was a mess. The wrong words at the wrong time. This is awful. So cold. […] Thank you for coming. There is no end. Good night.

Or as poor Thom Pain would have it, after all his futile and funny simpering:

I know this wasn’t much, but let it be enough. […]

Isn’t it great to be alive.

THOM PAIN (based on nothing) by Will Eno, directed by Hal Brooks, runs through December 2005 at the DR2 Theater. Starting September 5th, James Urbaniak will leave the title role, giving downtown colleague T. Ryder Smith an opportunity to apply varied shades of his own quirky darkness. Showtimes: Tues-Fri, 8pm , Saturdays, 6 and 9pm, Sundays, 3 and 7pm. Tickets: $60 at 212-239-6200 or theatermania.com or www.telecharge.com

Will Eno is an Alfred Hodder Fellow, and will be at Princeton University for the academic year 2005-2006. His play THOM PAIN (based on nothing) was named a Finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Will is presently at work on a new play, as well as a new translation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. He lives in Brooklyn .

Jake Hooker is a Brooklyn-based performance writer. He is a recent recipient of the TCG New Generation Mentorship Grant with Big Dance Theater. His newest work Pot au Noir (THE BLACK HOLE) will be presented by Adhesive Theater Project in 2006.

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Jake Hooker

JAKE HOOKER is a Brooklyn-based live artist. His work has been seen at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, the Bushwick Starr, the Chocolate Factory, and HERE, among others. He is pursuing a PhD in the theater program at the City University of New York's Grad Center.