One-person shows are usually garbage. It's a fact. They're the theatrical equivalent of an insufferable guy with a guitar who only sings songs about his exes. They demand that an audience connect to a single point of view and consume an endless stream of pathos and bathos as it pours out of one person's mouth hole. In the dark. Comedians manage to make this sufferable because they've created their acts through trial and error, testing what works and what doesn't over months and sometimes years in front of different audiences. In theater, however, it can all amount to little more than verbal diarrhea.
Award-winning playwright Will Eno (Flu Season, The Open House) and award-winning actor Rainn Wilson (The Office, Six Feet Under) agree — well, with that first sentence, at least. Over breakfast recently, Wilson said, "I'm not a fan of one-person shows. I don't necessarily like someone doing kind of therapy-catharsis and playing 50 different characters, or playing Teddy Roosevelt reading diaries by the fireplace, or whatever it happens to be." Eno added, "I've got to get on record as also not liking one-person shows."
The interview might have ended there if the former roommates weren't currently preparing to stage a one-man play, Eno's 2005 Pulitzer-nominated show, Thom Pain (based on nothing), which opens at the Geffen Playhouse this month, with Wilson in the title role and Oliver Butler in the director's chair. Why would one person–show haters do such a thing? Let alone stage one that concerns the distracted ramblings of a troubled man, Thom, who's just trying to work through some things? Well, for one thing, it's not theatrical solipsism.
Eno, who's 50ish and soft-spoken, explains, "There was a mix of reasons why I started writing the thing, and one was just stuff going on inside me and trying to figure myself out. I think my 30s were like many peoples' 20s, or really-together peoples' teens. But yeah, it was partly this deeply and emotional and mysterious personal thing, and then this sort of formal professional thing, where I was just so tired of those one-person shows that just seemed to not have anything to do with an audience. You can picture the guy playing [Teddy] Roosevelt just sitting there, and the audience could just politely sneak out and he'd still be there by the fire [affects his best Teddy Roosevelt impression] '... well the Rough Riders had just arrived in Havana on a sweltering day in August ...'?" In other words, no one's forcing anyone to feel anything. There is no Teddy Roosevelt. There is no diarrhea.
The role of Thom requires "a wounded, stray-dog type but with an odd intellectual aspect," a description that, oddly enough, could also apply to Wilson's delightfully unbearable character, Dwight Schrute, on The Office. Wilson says he also sees some of himself in Thom: "There's a phrase that Thom says in the play, 'I'm like you, in terrible pain trying to make sense of my life.' I liked that. I'm in much less pain now than I have been in other points in my life. But it's something that I really respond to. This guy kind of working out — kind of kneading and thrashing and diving into — all of this rich stuff. He's a kind of broken man with a limited life experience. He would benefit greatly from some kind of therapy, but he probably can't afford therapy ... so he has this play."
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Eno's struggle for meaning has drawn comparisons to Samuel Beckett's existentialism — but that can actually cheapen Eno's unique intent. He explains, "I definitely think that there are two ways to think about existentialism. It's that kid wearing all black, smoking a lot of cigarettes, who read French 'textes' with that 'E' in there, and then there's being 7 years old and wondering if people see you. Am I here? If I am here, what does that mean? It really is something, and it isn't just an idle, academic pursuit. ... Questioning the nature of existence is something for kids to do, too."
No one buys a ticket to see a guy read an essay on existentialism beneath a Fresnel. Thankfully, Thom Pain isn't a pain at all. It comes with a different level of gratification, metered language and a lyricism of which Eno says, "It always sounds pretentious when people talk about symphonies and music with respect to writing and theater. That said, there was some design to me that was a movement of thoughts and feelings — a very specific movement of thoughts and feelings — kind of ending in more of an 'opening up' than a driving toward 'Teddy Roosevelt, who then realized it was time to open up the National Parks system.' So it has a logic of feeling — I hope. And to [director] Oliver's great credit and to Rainn's great credit, I think it's really going to feel like a guy doing the best he can for as long as he can. But it's not these words in this order — it's this time in this room."
And with Wilson's thoughtful exploration of his and Eno's psyches, Thom Pain might actually be a more fulfilling experience than therapy. Even if it is a one-man show.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Jan. 8-Feb. 14. geffenplayhouse.com.