If a tree fell in the woods … would an audience come?
"Thom Pain (based on nothing)" bases part of its existence on such exigent enquiries.
Sure, there are times when Pain lives up to his name, and you ask yourself what is it with these existentialists, that it's always only about their point of view?
Can't they ever Sartre out their lives to accommodate others?
Hal Brooks brooks such questions readily. He is, after all, director of this surprising hit and 2005 Pulitzer finalist by Will Eno now extended through Labor Day at the DR2 Theatre in New York.
Revelling in this off-Broadway one-man show is one man who's become a new star for his efforts: The urbane James Urbaniak as the perplexed Pain in the aisle.
But it is Brooks, a native Philadelphian whose universe extends to the innovative theatrically, who makes common sense out of Thom Pain's problems.
Or tries to. After all, is there anything commonplace about an actor on stage who rails so ruefully he causes an audience member to leave abruptly, hectored by the actor with a caterwauled curse so offensive that it jars even the most jaded of theatergoers?
Or is that perturbed theatergoer just party to the game, part of the script, an unadvertised member of the cast who casts his lot with what others may be thinking of doing but are too craven to pull off?
Or … did it really happen at all?
Thom Pain's wailing wall of brickbats to society are not so much stream-of-consciousness - there is a playwright after all - but a river of no return.
The heart is a lonely hunter, but at least some come armed with shotguns. That damned jammed trigger: Pain's pleasure is in the scattershot approach, blaming others, blaming himself, blaming … no one.
If "Thom Pain" didn't exist, would someone have to invent him?
Brooks laughs at the conceit. The son of Dr. Allan and Edith Brooks of Elkins Park has parked his career in a great spot since becoming artistic director of the Rude Mechanicals Theater Company of New York, where he has helmed Don DeLillo's "Valparaiso" and Eno's "The Flu Season."
No shot can prepare you for this latest one, which has been selling out nightly for those who enjoy their theater asking questions, sometimes without question marks at the end.
Who knew that living in Elkins Park, right near Congregation Adath Jeshurun - which Brooks also belonged to - could provide a home base of such inner exploration for the space age?
"It was all very pretty and calm - unlike New York City," he says. "And A.J. is still very much a home away from home for me."
Homing in on the fringe feelings of others is not alien turf for Brooks, a Yale man whose bio yells of the untried and true. Unsurprisingly, Beckett has beckoned him in the past, and before taking "Thom" to New York, Brooks staged him at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
This is fringe with a survey on the top: Who the hell understands this?
Is "(based on nothing)" the ultimate truth in advertising? Is this the "Seinfeld" of the stage, a play about … nothing? Is it common sense or nonsense - or none of the above?
Maybe it's the quintessential unreality series - a theatrical "Survivor" in which the tribe hasn't spoken at all? The "Amazing Race" run backwards?
No, there is a rhyme and reason to it all, even if it seems more atonal than arpeggio artistry.
"My job," says Brooks, "is to make it concrete."
Indeed, he has cemented his rep as a smart director with this one, in which Brooks strives to "define the story in a cohesive way."
What weighs on Thom's mind? "It's all a tale of a guy who is having a tough time with life."
Welcome to the crowd. But the crowd of those staying after the show trying to talk to the actor seems to welcome this existential angst and anomie as another example of life on the wicked stage offering reflections of their own off-stage encounters.
"People do stay after the show has ended - and not because it's hard to find their way out," jokes Brooks.
Exit laughing … enraged … farklempt?
"We do tell the story obliquely; it's not straightforward."
That's a straight answer about the sideward glances the one-man show can generate among some confused theatergoers. What Brooks enjoys most about Eno's endgame is "its humor; it's so wonderfully wry, so sharp and acerbic. The audience is so stunned."
A sharp stick to the eye can also stun, but this playwright sticks it to their soul. "They leave stunned in a good way," insists Brooks of the audience. "They relate to Thom, to his heartbreak. They feel empathy."
Brooks is feeling pretty good himself these days - unlike the character on stage: "I'm much more well-adjusted than he."
He's had time to make the adjustments since discovering how tantalizing theater can be. That was in fifth grade, he recalls, at Myers Elementary School, when a production of "Scapino" scratched his interest.
And what interests him now? This Beckett fan who has made it in New York is just waiting for … the call.
Theater of the Absurd? Theater of the heart!
"My secret ambition is to work steadily in Philadelphia," says Brooks, hoping for a positive response to the existential question posed not by him but by others: "When a hit opens in New York, do they hear about it in Philadelphia?"