On Friday I went to see Fred open for Janeane Garofalo at the Crystal, and he did this funny thing about how he hates one-man shows, and then he performed an intro to a fake one-man show wherein he plays 400 characters (but he only does three here.) Sort of weirdly, one day earlier, I had gone to Powell's and bought the manuscript of 2.5 Minute Ride, a one-person show that I had seen seven years ago. And even though I laughed at Fred's parody and totally recognized the truth in it, I also have seen really amazing--I mean, is it hyperbolic to say "transcendent"?--solo shows.
But also, the last one I saw sucked, and it wasn't supposed to. It was Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), by Will Eno, in 2005. I was visiting my ex-town New York, and I was pretty broke, but I had read a rave review in the Times months earlier and had that in the back of my head when I laid out 60 bucks for the ticket. What did Charles Isherwood see that I missed? I was not feeling "one of those treasured nights in the theater" with "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation" so much as White Guy With Hipster Glasses In Foul Mood Because Nameless Abstract Girlfriend Dumped Him, Thereby All Of Humanity Cursed From Birth, Especially Him. I did like the way he used a certain "picture this" trick, and there was one passage I really loved, wherein a boy walking through a meadow accidentally kicks a nest of bees:
They swarmed into his eyes and mouth, stung him on every skinny surface. The boy did not, at first, make any sound. The poor thing did not understand. He thought, out in the meadow, that he had done something wrong. He thought that the pain was already in his body and was only coming out then to punish him, that the bees had only happened along later and were trying to help. His body was exploding in painful sores, which the bees were trying to salve, to soothe.Then the narrator of course turns this into a bitter metaphor for his own romantic persecution, "mistaking the bee for the flower, giving our heart away to the first prick or bitch to come down the trickling river," ad nauseum, and ruins it.
This was the first time ever I have been to a play where I thought, This is just so hetero I can't feel it. But really I think it wasn't the hetero-ness shutting me out, just impenetrable solipsism.
On the other hand, as mentioned, the day before I saw Fred's thing, I thought of Lisa Kron and her one-person show 2.5 Minute Ride, which I saw at the Public in 1999. 2.5 Minute Ride was the opposite of Thom Pain. Lisa Kron (one of the Five Lesbian Brothers) shows slides, which are actually blank squares of light, and describes scenes from her life and her father's life in them, juxtaposing an amusement park and Auschwitz, humor and horror. So like Thom Pain, there's a picture-this trick, but here, the details and stories accrue so elegantly and beautifully (and, key, Kron is bitingly funny as well) that by the end your chest is swollen huge with the humanity of it all. I found a used copy at Powell's and took it over to Half and Half, where the afternoon sun and the smells of coffee and concrete floor and light sweat triggered an olfactory summer. I read this in the introduction and wrote it down in my notebook:
First, the goal of autobiographical material should not be to tell stories about yourself but, instead, to use the details of your own life to illuminate or explore something more universal. Second, the work should not merely be a series of recollections. There has to be a dynamic element--dramatic action and conflict. Something must happen in the course of the performance.When I look at Thom Pain now (yes, I bought the script, solely for the bees), I notice a lot of language that I hear and read from a lot of young male writers now. Cynicism and yearning are duking it out in a big flurry of overconstructed verbiage, and the resulting tone is kind of... arch, detached, in-joke, masquerade bandit-mask in form of black-framed glasses.* It thinks it is a knowing tone, but all it actually knows is itself.
(*Not a reference to Fred's glasses, btw. Or Fred.)