Relentlessly breaking the fourth wall, even casting the performance’s audience as characters, American playwright Will Eno strives to deliver meaningful experience. By Darryn King.

Will Eno’s deconstructive theatre

Will Eno
Will Eno

A few years ago, during a one-man show in Belvoir’s intimate Downstairs Theatre in Sydney, the performer abruptly left the performance space, clambered over the stairs to the tech booth, hijacked the control desk and switched on the house lights, hauling the audience out of the comfortable darkness and into the scorching light.

It happened the same way almost every night for three weeks, because it was written that way. The setting of the play Thom Pain (based on nothing) is “a theatre”, and it isn’t really a one-man show, since the audience is a character – it even says as much in the dramatis personae of the script (“male, female, various ages”).

The American playwright Will Eno has a habit of reminding audiences that they’re in a theatre. In an Eno play, any mention of what day it is will be, as per Eno’s instructions, “Whatever day it presently is.” A character might point out the building’s fire exits (Middletown), or will suddenly announce, “I’m sick of the story. I’m sick of you. Next scene. It’s got flowers in it” (The Flu Season). At various times, Thom Pain singles out an audience member to tell them, “You’re lovely” or “I hope you’re paying attention” or, as if in passing, “I have that same shirt.” At the end of Gnit, which mostly resists direct address, the hero finally turns to the audience to say, “I hate you.”

In contrast to the diabolically in-control Thom Pain – personified with mortician iciness by Luke Mullins in the Arts Radar production at Belvoir in 2009 – Eno in person exudes human warmth. The New York Times gleefully reported his being “flustered into incoherence” in interview. His sentences are prone to false starts, followed by pensive silences. At one point, in the bustling Brooklyn cafe where we meet, he spectacularly topples a large cappuccino. “That’s the most coffee I’ve ever spilled in my life,” he says.

Thom Pain (based on nothing) premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, to the puzzlement of the critic who provided its first review and didn’t understand that the actor James Urbaniak wasn’t just playing himself. Despite this, the play went on to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005, and has since been described as “existential stand-up”, “Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation” and “Jerry Seinfeld in hell”.

In fact, it had begun life as a character study of Thomas Paine. “I really loved Thomas Paine,” says Eno. “He wrote such delicate, elegant sentences, and he also felt like this brutal individual, who paid a price for it. And then I changed the spelling and it became this other guy.”

This month, another of Eno’s not-quite one-man shows, Title and Deed, will be staged in Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre. Where Thom Pain confronted its audience head-on, Eno promises that Title and Deed is “a more gentle search for answers”. Subtitled “A Monologue for a Slightly Foreign Man”, the play will be directed by Jada Alberts and performed by actor Jimi Bani. Belvoir’s promotional copy promises “a distinctly Australian perspective to this international hit”.

“I can imagine that will highlight a certain outsider-ish aspect,” Eno says of the casting. “And I hope that it is also the outsider-ishness of all of us.”

Where another play might shine a metaphorical light on the playgoer, Eno’s shines actual lights on them. Where another production might hope to hold up a mirror to the audience, Eno will have a play entirely set among an audience during the intermission of another play. And where another playwright might be content to merely raise a topic or question, Eno will literally taunt and interrogate: “Do you like magic?” “When did your childhood end?” “What if you only had one day to live?” “Did you ever love anybody?” “Ever slowly lose control of something? Ever slowly lose control of everything? Fail? Ever fucking really badly fail?”

“You can’t sit in the dark and escape the journey he takes you on,” American comedy actor Rainn Wilson, who performed Thom Pain at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles earlier in the year, told me via email. “Thom shoots lasers at the audience. Not literally. Though that would be cool.”

Belvoir’s 80-seat Downstairs Theatre was uniquely suited to the exhilaration and excruciation of Thom Pain. “It’s one thing being addressed individually in an audience,” says Sam Strong, who directed the Sydney production. “It’s another to have everyone else watching your reaction.”

One production, Eno remembers, garnered a disgruntled review on Facebook: “Worst play in 45 years!” “I was always amused to know,” Eno says, “was there something he saw 45 years ago that was so bad?” Of the recent LA production, Wilson recalled: “At one point I remember there being an excruciatingly long pause. And then Thom says to the audience: ‘You’re being very patient.’ A grumpy old man then replied from the dark, ‘No we’re not’ and stormed out with his wife.”

It’s not surprising that Eno’s characters – barging through the fourth wall, forcing audiences to contemplate and confront their lives – cause some to recoil or retreat. But he promises Thom Pain’s heart is in the right place.

“There’s love and care in those questions he asks,” he says. “It’s sort of thrilling to me to think about the feeling in the room when you say, ‘When did your childhood end?’ My main hope was that it didn’t come across as navel-gazing; that you really thought about your own thing.”

Eno’s characters have a tendency to utter their human hopes and anxieties with startling articulacy and directness. An invitation to dance – “Dance with me. What are you afraid of?” – will inspire the response: “I’m not afraid of anything. Except loneliness, choking, stroke, drowning, anything socially transmitted, the dark, weakness, guilt, this, you, I don’t know, loneliness, going blind, history, this, things like this, my father, fathers.”

It’s an intensity of communication the playwright himself never experienced growing up.

“I was not asked questions as a kid. I don’t know if I even got, ‘How was your day at school?’ Even now, if I called my mum on the phone to say I’m addicted to drugs and getting divorced, I would know what temperature it is up in Boston within one minute of saying it.”

An aside: when Peter Gnit, the hero of Eno’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, announces his lofty intention to uncover “the authentic self”, his mother responds, “Get some milk, while you’re out.”

Eno continues: “On the one hand my dad was sort of a silent dark cloud; on the other, my mum – she’s still alive and pretty much with us – was a very sunny, but distant figure, never loved talking about feelings. In fact, she does love talking about the weather. I was trying to figure out what was the purpose of people talking, really. It all seemed like a secret, secret code. It gave me some distance from it but also some deep desire to figure it out.”

In his 20s, Eno cycled competitively, painted houses and worked in freelance construction. For nearly two years, he worked as a beginner broker on Wall Street – 7.30am to 6pm was the minimum shift duration – for $6 an hour.

“It was frustrating and a little lonely,” Eno says. “In retrospect, I see it as sidling up to the idea of being a writer.”

Eno would force himself to write in the late evenings. The weariness, rather than stifling his output, sharpened it. “I wrote a lot of clean sentences with not a lot of adjectives or adverbs. I was too exhausted to maintain the front of prancing around on the page with the pen. In some ways that year-and-three-quarters on Wall Street – you can tell how joyful it was, that I mark the three-quarters – was almost an exercise in putting as little personality on the page as possible, and seeing what was still left.”

Later in his 20s, Eno was inspired to begin what he calls a “Shakespeare binge”. “Something bad happened to me on the Ides of March,” he explains. He wound up in London proofreading psychology textbooks, and one day dropped off a copy of a play he’d written, accompanied by a handwritten note, at the back door of the National Theatre. It fell into the right hands.

Since that first play – it was called Tragedy: A Tragedy – Eno’s work has been infused with what the playwright Edward Albee praised as Eno’s profound “awareness of the human condition”. He has a habit in his performance notes of digressing into sympathetic reflections on humanity. Even his stage directions hint at existential angst. One, in The Realistic Joneses, usefully suggests that the actor should imagine himself “very clearly, dying, or, perhaps, sitting in a chair, in a severely disabled state. Brief pause.”

Possibly the essential driving force of Eno’s work lies in Thom Pain’s final question of the audience, “Isn’t it great to be alive?” Albee’s stated theatrical objectives – to alter people, to remind them to be “fully alive” – sum up the spirit of Eno’s work pretty neatly.

“I’d be happy if that was the description,” Eno agrees. “It’s always nice to hear, ‘That clarified some things’, or even, ‘That muddied some things, in a good way.’ ”

When Eno and I meet, it happens to be only a few days after Albee died, aged 88. He was not exactly, as has been written, a mentor of Eno’s, though they were close friends, and Eno looked after Albee’s cat, named Snow.

“We hardly ever talked about playwriting,” Eno says, tenderly. “I think we were both really happy to not talk about playwriting.”

One of the notions of Eno’s Middletown, which had its premiere in New York in 2010, was the mystic symmetry of birth and death. In adjacent scenes, one character has a baby, while another, just starting to embrace life anew after a failed suicide attempt, dies from an infection.

In 2014, Eno’s daughter, Albertine, was born “almost exactly 24 hours” after the death of Eno’s father.

“It was just a weird thing in addition to many many other feelings,” Eno says. “It was sort of, it had that same… One goes out and, you hope… I don’t know. I’m happy with that trade, as awful as that is to say.” Eno says the latter very carefully.

“It is amazing and intriguing and incredible, the extent to which we live in the shadow of that fact,” he continues, referring to the inevitability of death. “All of us are in some way facing it, and even if we’re facing it by turning our back and looking at cat videos, that is still a relation to it.”

Now, Albertine is a little over two years old. “I feel profoundly changed in my relationship to the world,” Eno says. “I just know that I have a much more sympathetic collection of feelings for any human being.”

Whether it’s his newly sensitive demeanour or otherwise, he is sweetly taken aback to be paid a compliment. “Oh,” he says. “I’m starting to wish I had never thrown that hot coffee at you.”

He is currently working on a play for early 2017, which he will also direct, as part of his residency with Signature Theatre in New York. The title, Wakey Wakey, audience-tested positively with Albertine. “She laughed.”

One of the riffs Eno is finessing is on the cosmic link between first words and last words. “I think my daughter’s first word was ‘door’. Which I found incredibly transcendent. I thought, ‘Oh, she’s going to be a thought leader of some kind. She’s going to look for transcendence in the world.’ And my mum said, optimistically, ‘Maybe she’ll be a doorman.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2016 as "Prying Eno".

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