For Playwright Will Eno, Writing Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) Was an Act of Bravery

The Pulitzer Prize finalist gets a local production (starring Rainn Wilson no less) more than 10 years after its off-Broadway success

Describing some plays is an act of pure folly—which rings true for both journalists and playwrights. So when Will Eno talks about his play Thom Pain (based on nothing), it’s more of a conceptual conversation than a literal one. Rainn Wilson—Eno’s former roommate—helms the one-man show, opening tonight at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse. Here Eno talks censoring thoughts, loneliness, and what Wilson brings to the table.

How much does Thom Pain mirror—in part or in whole—each person who sees the play?
At least to some degree, I hope. I hope there would be enough absolute specificity to his story but also some space and silence and nudging in this direction or that direction so people would have room to have their own thoughts and feelings as the thing is going on. I hope everyone is able to find something from, if not their own life, someone else’s.

It seems the way Thom behaves is representative of all the thoughts we have in a split second that we censor for the sake of likeability and acceptance. Is that a fair assessment?
I think that’s a fair idea. Thom Pain really does have a personality, and his style of thinking and speaking has particular trademark strategies that we all probably have. If he’s getting too close to the very heart of something, he’ll swerve away to another topic to defensively undercut what he just said.

Novelist Graham Greene said, “Every monologue sooner or later becomes a discussion.” Do you agree?
That’s a really great one. It’s interesting to think the monologue itself becomes a discussion without other people coming in. The monologue opens up in such a way so that it’s not a single self, but variations of the self. I think that happens in Thom Pain.

Since writing Thom Pain you’ve become a father. How, if at all, has your view of growing up changed since the premiere of the play 11 years ago?
A lot. In listening to Rainn do it, there isn’t anything that I didn’t understand in some way. I wrote it a good long while ago, and I’m sure I’m a much more guarded person. I probably had a more prickly sense of the world. I was looking for people who were out to get me rather than seeing the people who were really by my side. I can’t say that I’m a completely different person, but my energy is focused differently, I suppose. I don’t get too hung up on second-guessing myself. I don’t know if I would have had that clarity if I was still in the middle of the solitary wandering years.

You’ve been part of rehearsals for this production. What is Rainn bringing to the play?
He is doing a really beautiful job. He has such a light touch but also a completely grounded approach to the thing. In the best way I feel pretty sure [director] Oliver Butler and myself will kind of disappear.

You’ve spoken about liking loneliness and being alone. Is it odd that said loneliness brings people together to see your work?
That’s a really lovely thought—I’d not thought of that in such a brief and clear way. Loneliness is something people have to grapple with when writing. Sometimes people are all together and it can be a divisive experience, as some people aren’t into it and some are. But I hope it results in some kind of engaging discussion rather than a shutting down.

What kind of engaging discussion would you like to hear after people leave a performance of Thom Pain?
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to give away the line, “Isn’t it great to be alive?” Maybe they’d drift out of the Geffen and smell the flowers and see the cars go by. Maybe the great, embarrassing hope is that people might see and feel the world around them just a degree or two differently. That they had stuck with this guy long enough to get to that simple question at the end. They would really trust he understands his life enough to ask that question, and they might ask it themselves. But I do think it’s great to be alive.