The exceptional everyman 

How a former stoner and Gulf War vet emerged as a leading man

I know people who would go to great lengths to score some of whatever Andrew Rizzo was smoking in 1992. It was then when the Queens, N.Y., native lay baked on his couch watching television as an Army recruitment ad flashed onto the screen. For a recent high school graduate stoned out of his skull with no college plans and a dad threatening to kick him out, the Armed Forces suddenly sounded like a great idea.

“That afternoon I was in the recruiter’s office,” says Rizzo, now 31, speaking in the thickest of New York accents. “A week and a half later I was in Fort Benning, Georgia, infantry training brigade, to be a soldier.”

Rizzo went on to serve in Operation Intrinsic Action, a cleanup effort following the first Gulf War. Along with the rest of the Fourth Infantry Division, he sat on the Iraqi border for 10 months to help quell a Shi’ite uprising in the southern part of the country. “I saw enough,” he says, “but I didn’t have to draw down my weapon on anyone.”

It’s a long way from the Iraqi border to the Crystal Theatre, but that’s where Rizzo is currently featured in Montana Rep Missoula’s season-opening one-man play, Thom Pain (based on nothing). It’s a perfect fit for Rizzo because Thom Pain is the emotionally raw and exhausting story of an everyman who rents a theater so he can voice all his deepest fears and darkest ruminations—and Rizzo is the most authentic everyman you’d ever meet. What’s more, he’s able to convey that real-life persona on stage in a way that’s both intensely complex and easily identifiable.

“As far as the pain in this man’s life is concerned, I have my comparable experiences,” says Rizzo. “Relativity? No, relatively? Yes, relatively, I have a lot of similar experiences that bogged me down for so many years. There was a point in my life where I was able to face those experiences with the help of my friends, the help of my family, the help of my community, and I was able to say my piece. I was able to move forward in my life. That is what this man is trying to do.”

Rizzo’s path to acting seems almost accidental. He was a self-described film buff growing up in Queens, but never attended a play on or off Broadway. When he joined the Army he was the guy who got up and amused his fellow troops, breaking the monotony by ripping off Bogosian monologues or quoting Scorsese films to laughs and cheers. And then, like every drifter who ends up in Missoula, he collected countless stories of wanderlust—working a ranch in Wyoming, hooking up with some Tennesseans, heading north to work a fishing boat in Alaska—before finally getting sidetracked along the way by a girl in the Garden City. 

“The first real play I ever saw was Biloxi Blues at the University of Montana [in 2001] and I knew right then and there I wanted to be a part of it,” says Rizzo, who’s still with the same girl. “Whatever they were doing up there, I wanted to be a part of it.”

Rizzo isn’t just a part of it—he’s become a cornerstone of the local theater scene. After spending seven years balancing school and work—Rizzo is currently a youth mentor for Mountain Peaks, working with teens in a pre-release program—he received his acting degree from UM last May. A few months prior to graduation he landed the starring role in MRM’s excellent drama, The Pillowman, and follows that with an equally powerful performance as Thom Pain.

“Andrew is an exceptional actor who has a real ability to connect with an audience…He has the chops,” says MRM Artistic Director Greg Johnson. “We’re starting to find these core people for Montana Rep Missoula. Rizzo is one of those core people.”

And coming to grips with that rise has been a long process for the self-effacing and unaffected Rizzo.

“It’s weird because I was always kinda afraid to call myself an actor,” Rizzo says, shrugging his shoulders. “I would’ve said, yeah, I’ve been in plays. But I wouldn’t have called myself an actor. Now I feel I’m an actor. It took me a very, very long time to own up to that.”

Thom Pain (based on nothing) continues at the Crystal Theatre through Saturday, Oct. 20, each night at 8 PM. $10 Thu./$15 Fri. and Sat.

Review: Let’s keep this simple: Go see Thom Pain
There’s no show to this show. There’s no performance in the performance. Montana Rep Missoula’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) is so simple, so stripped down and basic as a theatrical production—one man, one chair, one desk, one silhouette cut-out as background scenery—that it feels uncomfortably real sitting and listening as a troubled man airs his existential baggage to a group of strangers.

“Does it scare you? Being face-to-face with the modern mind?” Pain asks at one point.

You know what, it does. But as every meaningful tangent, every detailed anecdote and every odd joke strings together, it’s impossible to look away.

MRM Artistic Director Greg Johnson and star actor Andrew Rizzo have found the perfect pitch to a play that’s entirely about tone. Playwright Will Eno’s award-winning script is a not-quite-rambling, almost coherent, amazingly poignant 85-minute monologue about fear. Pain, we’re told, has simply rented out a theater to reveal haunting truths from his life as some sort of public therapy. That may sound masochistic to endure, but the writing is whip-smart, funny, tragic and poetic. The script from open to close is damn near perfect.

And that’s only part of the equation. Rizzo, with the help of Johnson’s seasoned guidance, creates an unnerving and powerful presence as Pain. There’s an immediate vulnerability in his voice, and a visceral trepidation to his actions. His hair looks ridiculous, his right leg shakes uncontrollably, his well-worn banker’s suit is as much a symbol of his life as anything—and then he hits the perfect wry punch line out of nowhere, showing he’s just trying to make it through this, like you.

“Do you like magic? I don’t. But enough about me.” He gets through the lines like he’s a metronome and moves on.

Every year MRM seems to strike gold with the sort of edgy contemporary play that exemplifies the company’s mission. Two years ago it was the high-energy paranoia of Bug, last year featured the twisted drama of The Pillowman, and this year, with its season opener, MRM already has a stunning Thom Pain. The more pain or anger you’re suppressing inside or, just as equally, the more your capacity for compassion, the more you’ll be absorbed by this play.
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