As I sat watching Joe Hanrahan in the one-man show Thom Pain (based on nothing) in the basement of Herbie’s Vintage 72, I thought how much it felt like the early days of Gaslight Square. One performer, no set to speak of, a small audience, the background noise of eaters and drinkers drifting in, and a strange, sometimes mesmerizing piece of work before us. It could have been the Crystal Palace without the crazy décor.
The Will Eno play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, losing to Doubt, in 2005. The following year, Hanrahan brought it to St. Louis in this very spot. It hasn’t aged. The goofy bouncing-off-the-brain script is far from usual. It’s like seeing Picasso if someone knew no visual art after, oh, 1900. Yes, it’s disjointed, although there is, sort of, a story line. But the nameless narrator veers off in strange, irrational directions, creating almost a word salad that leaves some people chuckling and others scratching their heads. It is not quite absurdist, but it clearly is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett.
Hanrahan relates a tale that begins with a small boy and goes on to talk about a difficult, unsatisfying existence. The audience is never sure what will happen, or be said, next. Hanrahan is relaxed, comfortable in the world of the narrator, oddball as it is, pacing and gesturing and occasionally talking to specific members of the audience. He makes it look easy, creating an experience as much as he’s creating theatre.
I’m not sure if Thom Paine could actually be considered performance art, which can sometimes feel deeply self-indulgent. On examination, this is anything but that, its strangeness is carefully thought out and delivered. It runs about 75 minutes, leaving plenty of time for a drink upstairs and a long discussion about the play.
Thom Pain (based on nothing)
Fridays and Saturdays until August 6
The Midnight Company (Website)
Herbie’s Vintage 72
405 N. Euclid Ave.