By Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Directed by John Vreeke
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
I have some bad news for you. In the next few months, or years, life as we know it apparently will end, courtesy of a major collision between Earth and a great big comet. Regrettably, the few survivors will include, not an overweight, balding theater reviewer, but a nerdy fish scientist named Jules (Aubrey Deeker) and the hyperkinetic journalism student Jo (Kimberly Gilbert) who the fates have appointed as his partner in the arduous task of repopulating the world. I have learned about these unfortunate events from a museum exhibitor named Barbara (Sarah Marshall), who, being from the future, has a little perspective on them. I am happy to report that museum exhibitors from the future are just as pleasantly neurotic as they are today.
Boom, a wickedly clever play set against a backdrop of mass extinction is, curiously enough, a comedy: a story about birth, and about the persistence of life. Jules lures Jo into the refurbished bomb shelter that is both his lab and his home with a Craigslist ad which promises “intensely significant coupling”. In the sense Jules means it, all coupling which includes the possibility of birth is intensely significant. The child who results may lead nations, or discover the unified field theory, or start a savage war. Or repopulate the world after a cataclysmic event. Jo is after something different: a random orgasm which might give meaning to her arid life. Jo and Jules learn this thing with the audience over the course of the play: it is hard to have a significant experience.
When the Boom arrives – and it arrives, believe me – it quickly becomes apparent how badly appointed Jules and Jo are for the task of repopulating humanity. In curiously modern ways – I won’t get into the details – their mating seems impossible, even unthinkable. The tiger and the naked mole rat, the shark and the damselfish in Jules’ tank, all mate without thinking, but Jules and Jo think without mating. Nachtrieb lays a provocative question on the table: in the event of a cataclysm, could we repopulate the world? Or have we become too particular; too quick to be repelled by the partner of less than our dreams, too offended by the thought of babies, with their demands and their spitup? Would we spend the remainder of our days curled up in the corner of our bomb shelters, listening to iTunes and wishing we could order pizza?
That we are hearing the story from Barbara’s long-view perspective provides us with some comfort. Clearly someone survived, or we would not be watching this relentlessly didactic exhibitor, standing above the stage with her big drums and her light and sound system like an Olympian god in a Greek drama and giving us the exposition. That she mutters complaints about her employer, and that the mutterings become more pronounced and more detailed as the play goes on, comforts us further: things won’t get that much different, even across years of time.
Olympian gods are in short supply, which should mean plenty of work for Sarah Marshall. In large part, the success of this play rises and falls on how well the actor who plays Barbara performs her role. She must begin by being intrusive without being obnoxious; at precisely the right moment she must shift the attention of the story from Jo and Jules to herself, and we must never resent her for it. Marshall is superb in all of this. Director Vreeke ratchets up the challenge for her by broadcasting an image of her face on the ceiling, so that the movement of every muscle is visible for us. It reminds us of the difference between theater and movie acting: stage actors act with their voices, and screen actors act with their faces. In Marshall, voice and face are in perfect harmony. I believe you could understand Barbara’s story simply by looking at her face, even if there was no dialogue; or from her voice alone.
Deeker and Gilbert get less to work with from Nachtrieb, but they make the most of it. Jo is sort of a one-note character, but Gilbert manages to radiate her anger without making us angry with her. As for Deeker, he is able to capture the earnest awkwardness of the truly socially inept with great grace; at times, he is a Nijinsky of cluelessness. We manage not to laugh at him as he explains the bizarre deaths of the members of his immediate family. His one moment of real triumph – when he realizes that his prediction of mass extinction was correct – is, on the other hand, absolutely hilarious.
A word about the set, which was designed by the celebrated architect Thomas Kamm: it is swell. I doubt that you have ever been in a graduate student’s underground bomb shelter lab/sleeping quarters – I know I haven’t – but the moment you take a look at what Kamm has put on the stage, you’ll know where you are. The rest of the technical work is done by the usual suspects: Colin K. Bills on lighting; Neil McFadden on sound; and Ivania Stark doing costumes, and it is all unobtrusively effective.
Running Time: 1:50 (no intermission)
When: Wednesdays through Sundays until Dec 7th. All shows at 8 except for Sundays, which are at 2 and 7.
Where: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW (7th and D), Washington, D.C.
Tickets: $26-$60. Call 202.393.3939 or go to the website.