The games that expectations play! All the superlatives heaped on a little off-Broadway show, "Thom Pain (based on nothing)," made it sound irresistible. A monologue by Brooklyn playwright Will Eno, the piece opened in February to critical huzzahs, followed by its being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Dutifully anointed, it's been a hot ticket ever since.
I'm not sure what I was anticipating, exactly -- you hear "great," you just have to be there. But catching up with the show more than four months into its run, you feel a magnitude of letdown in direct proportion to the intensity of the hype. The play, a window on the bruised psyche of a lonely guy, is inhabited with compelling dexterity by James Urbaniak. Yet the monologue stints on illumination; the light it sheds pours through nothing larger than a pinhole. In the end, it feels a rather ordinary, single-dimension exercise in navel-gazing.
The playgoers with whom I sat in the DR2 Theatre on East 15th Street were exceedingly polite. You could sense their eagerness to encounter profundity -- many of them, after all, had shelled out 60 bucks for 70 minutes of enlightenment. Still, as Urbaniak took them through the disjointed reflections and confessions of a young man discomfited by his uncertain destination on the map of life, you could feel the air slowly being sucked from the room. The shaggy-dog tale, the deadpan delivery, the terminally ironic humor failed to connect.
It's instructive for a reviewer to sample a production well after the critical hordes have nibbled at it, when the pressure is off and performances have ripened. You get the blowback from the real world, a taste of what's left when the chatterers have moved on to the next buzzworthy thing. And "Thom Pain," it seems, is one of those shows that have suffered as much as they've benefited from the spotlight.
"You're being very patient," Urbaniak's Thom Pain says to us deep into the play. He's got that right. The character begs our indulgence as his reminiscences flow stream-of-consciousness-style. He recounts his disappointments, discourses on this and that, makes promises he has no intention of keeping. (He informs us, for instance, that our ticket stubs will be used in a raffle.) There are a few funny moments that give the impression you're attending the exact opposite of a Tony Robbins motivational seminar -- a workshop meant to remind you how fruitless is your sprint through the universe.
The play got its start at the venerable fringe festival at Edinburgh -- fringe being a term to connote original work that defies orthodoxy: the outrageous, the odd, the obscure. (If things go as planned, Washington will inaugurate its own festival, the Capital Fringe, next summer.) "Thom Pain" pitches to the strike zone of what fringe tries to be, and in a long run in a cozy theater, it feels neutered, cut off from the fringe's habitat of novelty and surprise. It does have Urbaniak going for it. Best known, perhaps, for his turn as the writer Robert Crumb in the indie hit "American Splendor," he's a crafty and agile needler of his audience. But you'd so much prefer him in something that doesn't turn so self-consciously in on itself, a piece with lots more kick.
The kick I wanted from "Thom Pain" I got the very next evening from another off-Broadway hit. The pleasure came as a complete shock. (There go those expectations again!) "Altar Boyz," which opened in March to admiring reviews, offers a premise that seemed to guarantee 90 minutes of agony. It's the tongue-in-cheek story of the rise of a Christian-rock boy band. And what do you know: The show, at Dodger Stages on West 50th Street, is the opposite of a bad sermon. It is sweet-natured and funny and performed with stylish verve by five turbo-powered young actors.
Borrowing liberally from the likes of "Rent" and "Godspell" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Altar Boyz" takes swipes at saccharine celebrity piety, but its juiciest target is the sanctity of rock history. The Boyz -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and the, er, Jewish one, Abraham -- recount in song the genesis of their group and the eccentric brand of spirituality that has made the Lord their American Idol. "God put the rhythm in me," one of the Boyz declares, "so I could bust a move."
Glory be, the Boyz really can move, and an eclectic rock score by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker allows them to prove it. Christopher Gattelli's choreography is a bull's-eye, skewering all that flashily mechanical boy-band twist-and-grind. For those so concerned, the show does not seek to insult or blaspheme. The naive band members wear their faith sincerely, even though the show lets us know it's bound to be corrupted.
In concert (no pun intended) with book writer Kevin Del Aguila and director Stafford Arima, the composers evince a generosity of spirit that ensures, refreshingly, that religion is not held up for easy ridicule. In this showbiz fantasia, even gay Altar Boyz are welcome; in fact, it's flamboyant Mark (a superb Tyler Maynard) who gets the sort of show-stopper worthy of Jennifer Holliday in "Dreamgirls."
Maynard's fellow disciples -- Scott Porter, Andy Karl, Ryan Duncan and David Josefsberg -- are apportioned their stellar moments, and each embraces his as if it were an Olympic medal. "Altar Boyz" won't change the course of the musical, but on a night when what you ask from the theater is a little joy, it's the answer to a prayer.
Thom Pain (based on nothing), by Will Eno. Directed by Hal Brooks. Set, David Korins; lighting, Mark Barton. Approximately 70 minutes. At DR2 Theatre, 103 E. 15th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.thompain.com.
Altar Boyz, music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker; book by Kevin Del Aguila. Directed by Stafford Arima. Set, Anna Louizos; costumes, Gail Brassard; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Simon Matthews; music director, Lynne Shankel. Approximately 90 minutes. At Dodger Stages, 340 W. 50th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.