ARTS & CULTURE
Critic's Choice

Rainn Wilson finds the laughs in loneliness in 'Thom Pain (Based on Nothing)'

Do you like magic? It’s the first of many questions about which the eponymous narrator of “Thom Pain (Based on Nothing)” remains deeply ambivalent. Equivocation, for him, lies at the core of human experience, or perhaps not.

No such ambiguity taints the magic of Rainn Wilson’s deft solo performance, however, as the 2004 play by Will Eno makes its long-awaited L.A. premiere at the Geffen Playhouse.

Gleefully deconstructing our understanding and expectations of theatrical form, storytelling and even audience participation, Eno’s brilliantly crafted monologue is a direct descendant of the spare, absurdist writings of Samuel Beckett.

A deceptively drab, nondescript figure on a threadbare stage, Wilson’s postmodern everyman engages us directly in rambling, hyperlinked anecdotes, observations and non sequiturs that reveal nothing more of his character’s history, motivation or feelings beyond elliptically doled-out words. Also as in Beckett, the search for meaning and certainty are paradoxically upended: “The truth? I don’t care either way,” he confesses. “That’s not true. I do care, either way.”

Oliver Butler’s superb direction keeps Wilson keenly attuned to the script’s multilayered cadences. “I’m trying,” he says at one point, pausing just long enough for us to realize it’s not an assertion of good intention but, rather, an admission of character defect.

The double-edged wordplay both acknowledges and keeps at bay the somber theme of life’s unfulfilled promise threading the monologue’s riffs on fear, childhood traumas, loss of innocence and inability to find one’s footing in the world. Despite the absence of a linear narrative progression, the piece steadily builds dramatic momentum as it cycles through its seemingly disparate recurring elements, ultimately conflating them in a haunting dreamlike reverie. The script’s modulations in tone are precisely honored, even if some fine-tuning is needed to make the softest-spoken moments more audible.

“Thom Pain” may, indeed, be “based on nothing,” as its subtitle suggests, but it’s actually about nothing-ness, which is really something in this day and age.

Counterbalancing this alienation is Eno’s unique comic voice — often described as “stand-up existentialism” — to which Wilson’s impeccable deadpan delivery is ideally suited. Recalling an epic romance that briefly dispelled his “unaloneness,” Thom Pain explains the reasons for its failure: “I disappeared in her and she, wondering where I went, left.”

It’s one of the few moments when Thom takes ownership of an experience. Most of his stories are related in the third person and thus only autobiographical by implication. In his declared intention “to be, to my own self, untrue” lies the play’s insightful diagnosis of our collective existential malady: the pervasive false self, for which inwardness and reflection become only tools of reassurance and validation rather than self-discovery.

Offsetting all its angst, however, is the play’s final evocation of magic in the simple fact of existence: It may not be much, but maybe it’s enough to keep us going.

“Thom Pain (Based on Nothing),” Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 14. $76-$99. (310) 208-5454,  www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 65 minutes.

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