Tom Poole wrote this play:
Stephen Hawking and Beethoven walk into a bar. Stephen Hawking—that Stephen Hawking—has become an international celebrity of Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, and Bradgelina proportions—we're talking about the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking—by starring in a popular new television situation comedy. Astronomical profits from said celebrity and television show have allowed Hawking to both fund the cure for his own congenital physical ailments and warp the space time continuum to bring Beethoven to the present to join season 2 of Hawking's hit television show as a special guest star. O, and even though he is now able to speak and move in a completely conventional fashion at this point, Hawking still likes to pretend to be disabled in public so as not to ruin his public persona and also to lure cute waitresses in bars to reach into his pants and root around in there for the money he needs to pay for his beer.
To which the common and only proper reply is: What the F*ck, Tom, What the F*ck?
. . .
Months before I met Tom Poole, the actor Chris Carlson kept telling me about this guy who wrote this screenplay that Chris had just read that was strange and absurd and hysterical but also, it sounded to me, potentially not-so-hysterical-and-just-actually-sort-of-frighteningly-strange. I can't even remember the plot very well, sad to say, because it just didn't lend itself to being explained, but Chris was convinced that this writer, Tom Poole, was a mad genius, and he insisted on re-describing the plot to me every time we met. Over and over again, I would get the same message about Tom from other actors in town. You got to meet this guy, they would say. He writes this stuff that is, well, you just got to meet this guy.
. . .
What the F*ck? actually was the name of the play. What the F*ck? was the name of the sitcom in the play. And "What the F*ck?" was exactly what all the people who had the pleasure of watching the great Phil Kilbourne, Phil Callen, Kate Eifrig, and Grant Richey 1 perform this play actually said to themselves while laughing their f*cking asses off.
I think the play was a send-up of celebrity-obsessed culture and theoretical physics at the same time. I think it was a commentary on the high and the low of our culture and where we might be headed when the two things become entirely indistinguishable and no one cares. I think these things, but I'm not entirely sure, because I was laughing too hard at the wrongness and rightness of the whole thing. I think, ultimately, it was, like the best theater experiences, a lot of things all at once and the best part of all was that it made no sense while actually, at the same time, making absolutely perfect sense.
Only a writer like Tom, who was always straddling the line between making no sense and perfect sense, has any handle on the world we live in right now.
. . .
Tom intimidated me at first. Sometimes I felt I wasn't in on the joke that was happening during our conversations. He seemed too relaxed and bemused. I'd say the sky was blue and he'd reply that Flaubert had a blue parrot.2 He also seemed too well-read, able to throw in a quote from Milan Kundera or Plato or David Foster Wallace without straining that lovely Southern drawl. He seemed to think I was well-read too, and I was terrified that he would discover that I wasn't nearly as erudite as he was. He was so smart that, even though he was never pretentious or pedantic, hanging around with him made me feel stupid. Funny, happy, stimulated, but also stupid. Plus, he was one stubborn sonofabitch; only someone that stubborn could write what he wrote.
. . .
Safe as Houses, his most recent full-length play, told the story of a "real estate agent of last resort" trying to unload the property from hell—literally, the property from hell. On stage we see two well-presented front rooms but every time someone enters any other room in the house, they feel an overwhelming desire to kill themselves. People cut themselves on the kitchen counters—not accidentally; the counters are built to kill. (Laugh line by laugh line, it is one of the funniest plays I've ever read: We can still catch her, says one character late in the play. She's so stupid. All we need is a pack of cigarettes and a cardboard box. Think about it.) Tom had asked me to direct a reading of it at the Playwrights Center a few years ago, and when I remarked that the ending wasn't coming together in a way that would satisfy an audience, Tom replied with something like, "O, I don't want it to satisfy the audience. I guess I need to make it weirder, so they know that."
If I recall correctly, the reviews of Joking Envelope's production of the play mostly talked about how the play was funny but maybe over-long and a little lacking in focus—which is a perfectly valid assessment of the play if you only ever expect the type of theater you've seen before.
In the end, Safe as Houses is the only good recent play I've seen about the American Dream, reflected through the prism of the just past real estate boom and bust. It may be the only good play that I've seen in the last few years that actually takes as its subject not some minute, discrete "important" topic as identified by the front page of the New York Times but instead aims to be a play about the only thing plays are supposed to be about—how we live now and what it means to live that way. Tom wrote plays that captured how the world is an interconnected and ever-shifting entity in which real estate, guns, and nuclear weapons, and acting classes, grief, family, materialism, and so much more are all necessarily entwined. He wrote stories that included everything and anything which he thought was relevant to the story of our lives right now—which was everything—from Stephen Hawking to Beethoven to Julia Childs.
I would argue that the fact that Tom could make you laugh so hard while also asking yourself, What the F*ck?, was proof enough that his vision was more fun and original than yours, and where he wanted to take you in his plays was going to be better than where you thought you wanted to go when you bought your ticket. He was a writer who proved his own style in the doing of it.
His intelligence, his omnivorous knowledge, and his stubborn integrity are attributes I will spend the rest of my career attempting to emulate.
. . .
He also wrote for this magazine in a way that was infused with soul, enthusiasm, exuberance, hopefulness, and curiousity. His writing here is a clinic on the basic qualities of great nonfiction. He had a distinctive Voice, a love for the problems and possibilities of language; he was smart enough and curious enough to provide the Information you needed to know about the subject he was discussing; and, in the end, he always brought a Perspective to his writing that made it perfectly obvious why seeing a show like The Klingon Christmas Carol was significant. I know the criticism that conventional arts editors might make about his essays; to which I would simply reply that Tom's writing here was never ever boring--and too much boring is the reason why most other arts journalism is not actually read by anyone.
. . .
In 2009, Tom emailed me some thoughts on an experimental show I had created and that he had graciously come to see. (Tom saw a lot of stuff by a lot of people.) It was the kind of response I think artists dream of not because it was positive—it was complimentary but that wasn't the point. It was such a touching message entirely because he was really looking hard at what he saw. He talked about my use of metaphor onstage. He talked about what surprised him, about why he liked it, about the ideas that jumped out at him, and might need or want more exploration. He talked about what he thought he saw as a developing style in my work. It was an awesome email. And he ended it with this sentence, as though he were almost embarrassed to have paid such close attention:
"I think it's important as playwrights that we contribute as much as possible as witnesses of one another's stuff, as it's so easy to feel invisible these days."
Like all the best writers, Tom used his astute mind and singular voice to see the world clearly; like all the best people, he knew that the purpose of his talent wasn't just to write well but to live well. Tom treated others with a kindness that was more than simple generosity; it was a very truthful kind of compassion. I think that's what made his comedy so wrong and so right, so biting yet so fun—he looked hard at all of our awful truths and yet loved us humans anyway.
And that's part of what makes losing him so awful. He had real vision--the kind that most of us are too timid to practice--and he used that vision to 1) make you laugh and 2) make you feel known and understood. Visible. People like that don't come along everyday.
Thank you, Tom. Thank you so much.
Last year, Tom wrote these words on this website about his friend, the actor Grant Richey: "I don’t believe in any kind of immortality, but I believe one of the delights of a theatre community is that someone like Grant will linger like that. For a long time."
Same to you, Buddy, same to you. As usual, Tom, no one could say it better.
1The great Phil Kilbourne is fighting brain cancer. Also an important member of the Twin Cities theatre community, he could use your best wishes right now.
2Not an actual conversation. Though similar to actual conversations.