On February 1, after an opening-night performance of his one-man show, Thom Pain (based on nothing), James Urbaniak headed home to Noho with his wife to wait for the reviews. “You don’t go to Sardi’s anymore to buy the late edition—you go home and go online,” he says. After reading the Times review at 1:30 A.M., he phoned the play’s author, Will Eno, who hadn’t planned to wait up. But as it turned out, Eno’s girlfriend had already found it, and told Eno, “Will, you really should read this.”
The review wasn’t just supportive or exuberant; it read like something a playwright or actor might compose in a daydream while lounging in the bathtub. “It’s one of those treasured nights in the theater,” Charles Isherwood wrote; Urbaniak, he said, “establishes himself as a significant artist with his sly, heartbreaking, exquisitely calibrated turn.” Thom Pain (based on nothing) had been well received during a run in London and a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but this was success of a different order: It sounded a starter’s pistol that sent theater fans racing toward the box office. The day of the review, the show sold $152,000 worth of tickets. It’s now sold out through mid-April. Suddenly, Thom Pain is the most prized ticket Off Broadway—“The Producers, writ small,” Urbaniak says with a laugh—and true enough, Urbaniak, its sole star, is almost as hot as Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane rolled into one.
Urbaniak is 41 but looks at least ten years younger. He’s tall and knife-thin, and wears pebbled, plastic-rimmed glasses—a hipper, more flattering version of the horn-rimmed spectacles worn by his character, Thom Pain. He speaks, like his character, in well-thought-out, precise sentences. Unlike Pain, though, he occasionally interrupts himself with a sharp burst of staccato laughter, which seems intended to let out tension when he’s addressing something he’s not entirely comfortable with—as when he says, in regard to the hubbub, “I have a pretty guarded approach to show business. I have a healthy skepticism. So I’m just starting to embrace—ha ha ha—the success of it.”
As an actor, Urbaniak is adored by downtown insiders, vaguely familiar to the layman, and entirely self-taught. As a teen in Marlboro, New Jersey, he floated through his studies—“I was kind of a fuck-up in high school,” he says—got rejected from Rutgers, then headed off to Brookdale Community College. He lasted a couple of years, did a few plays, juggled half-considered career options—journalist, graphic artist—then dropped out to become, in his words, “the quintessential slacker kid.” He listened to Elvis Costello and Talking Heads. He hung out with a guy he’d met in college who was obsessed with old movies. He discovered James Cagney. He temped. “I had vague ideas about becoming an actor,” he says, “but I wasn’t doing anything about it.”