Most of us can stand up in public and make a speech if we’re forced to at gunpoint. But when we sit in an audience, we want to relax. The pressure is on the actor on stage, not the viewer. We’re there to be entertained, and we’ve had a lifetime of passive TV watching to get used to that one-way relationship.

But theater has the potential to do so much more. There’s an exciting sense that anything can happen. Actors can break that invisible screen between them and the audience, interact with us, or incorporate us into the show. Audience members can turn out to be plants, actors in disguise. The star might drop a line or lose his thread at any moment and still keep the story going by picking it up again with different dialogue. It’s heroism on a primal level as we see the performer’s fight-or-flight mechanism kick in.

Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) plays with this potential, using theater’s flexibility to destroy a traditional narrative then piece it back together and build something new. It’s a one-man ramble with some serious points to make, with lots of surprises along the way. The dialogue is broken up on purpose, plot strands are left dangling for minutes at a time, and audience members aren’t encouraged to relax. They’re there to think instead.

Pain is the name of the show’s single character, an introverted intellectual with glasses and a dark blue suit. Pain has stories and jokes to tell, but he’s not quite sure which order to tell them in.

At its heart, the play is about relationships — between a boy and his electrocuted dog, for example, or a boyfriend and girlfriend. In his scatterbrained way Pain uses his childhood as a metaphor for a failed relationship with his lover and also the universal failings of people everywhere, including the people in the audience.

Pain wants to dwell on all the wrong choices we’ve made, the niggling headaches that make us want the world to end, and the many times we’ve been ruled by our own irrational fears. We are loathsome, self-absorbed creatures who make him feel sick. He should know, he’s equally fearful.

But the play isn’t all doom and gloom. Performer George Metropolis (The Seagull), a rising junior at the College of Charleston, encourages us to imagine different concepts and images, from pink elephants to non-existent raffles. He has a boyish face and a mischievous, secret smile that he uses often and effectively. When he does hit a dark note or just trails off into silence, we remember that smile, and it’s a comfort, albeit a small one.

Metropolis works hard to hold our attention for the 80-minute duration of this play. He leans forward, hands clasped, shifting his weight from foot to foot or pacing around the black stage. He grabs his belt buckle when he talks about sex and perches on the edge of a table to chug a glass of water. Apart from the table and a pitcher, there aren’t many distractions; the curtain and walls are also black, suiting some of Thom Pain‘s bleak topics. When he describes the character’s distressing early days, Metropolis’ youth and shades of Shia LaBeouf-type charisma work in his favor. But we never really believe he’s experienced the kind of hurt he discusses, and without that believability, the play loses some of its power.

Director George Patrick McLeer maintains the right tone of fun (Pain’s plans for the night don’t always work out) and thoughtfulness (questioning the futility of our existence). McLeer keeps the tricks that helped make the play so successful when it premiered, such as moments of unusual lighting (by Carly Ridgeway) and the misuse of a volunteer from the audience. But he makes sure the show works specifically for the Chapel Theatre space as well.

Pain eventually finds his girl, or loses her again, or doesn’t meet her at all. It doesn’t really matter. He connects with us by sharing his romantic experiences, real or imagined, while simultaneously saying that his love affair doesn’t mean much on a galactic scale. We’re all insignificant specks of dust hurtling towards oblivion. It’s not an unique point of view, but it’s one we need to be reminded of from time to time to keep our egos in check. Even scorned paramours make sense sometimes.

Playwright Will Eno always intended Thom Pain to make audiences squirm in their seats. As someone who doesn’t like being picked out from the crowd, questioned by a character or “volunteered” for anything, I found parts of this play uncomfortable to watch. By the time Metropolis was walking in between the seats, I felt nauseous. For this particular play, that’s a compliment because it achieved its goal. Like a roller coaster, live theater can thrill, amuse, or upset anyone who goes along for the ride. This production has its slower, duller moments, but its highs make the nausea worthwhile.