Theater review: Boom
Maybe you’ve played the game: Choose X number of items you’d like to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island. The idea is fun to play around with, because your odds of becoming marooned are slim. How else to explain the popularity of the TV series “Lost” and numerous other ship- or plane-wreck-themed shows, movies and books?
Less popular is the game in which you get to choose X number of items to take with you into a shelter to wait out the annihilation of the planet. That doomsday scenario strikes too close to home in the nuclear era, which may explain why it’s the subject of so many action and art movies and so few successful comedies in any medium, the notable exception being director Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove.
Consider playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s 2007 work Boom, another outlier in the Armageddon enterprise. In the Vermont Stage Company production currently running at Burlington’s FlynnSpace, humanity’s imminent demise is the catalyst for a comical exploration of the end of the world as we know it — treated as a matter not of “if” but of “when.” That’s an unavoidable spoiler: In Nachtrieb’s vision, a comet will collide with Earth, forcing the question, “Now what do we do?” and giving form to this quirky, inventive play.
Boom, which is directed by VSC producing artistic director Cristina Alicea, kicks off the company’s 2012-2013 season — a season united by a “Crossroads” theme. In a program note, Alicea points to the plays’ examinations of choices that characters make and, of course, of the consequences of those choices.
One wise decision Alicea made in her production of Boom was to employ Jenny C. Fulton and Travis Ellsworth as scenic designer and assistant scenic designer, respectively. (Fulton also designed the costumes.) The Boom set makes an intriguing first impression through its décor and arrangement of objects. Actually’, “décor” is the wrong term, as the stage is set for a strictly functional lifestyle. Four computer monitors displaying an undersea scene line the upstage wall, flanked by neatly stacked boxes and a secure-looking door, such as one might find on a submarine or bank vault, at upstage left. A downstage bed, fish tank and desk complete the picture of a room where someone might spend long spans of time.
As in, the rest of one’s life.
The denizen of this sanctuary is a young marine biologist named Jules (Alex Koch). He has lately been troubled by an increase in hiding behavior among fish under his observation, and has concluded that the fish know a calamity is coming. So he has stocked his man cave for survival. This comes as a shock to the woman, Jo (Genevra MacPhail), whom he lures back to his lair with a personal ad. She’s especially horrified to learn that his survival plans include propagating the species — with her. This news makes Jules’ disclosure that he’s gay a minor detail.
What follows is like a postapocalyptic update of “The Odd Couple,” in which the unlikely cohabitants bicker — and battle outright — over their reproductive future. Alicea directs her cast deftly through a script that blends clever repartee and ponderous musings in the confines of a single space. When the play hits its few dead notes, they appear more the result of Nachtrieb’s straining toward Big Ideas than of a lack of dynamism onstage.
As Alicea demonstrated with last season’s The Clean House, directorially she’s adept at bringing energetic movement even to simple domestic spaces. Her actors always hit the boards in full stride. In Boom, this enthusiasm props up a theatrical commentary that sometimes reaches, philosophically speaking, further than it can grasp.
Of the three cast members, Koch carries the heaviest burden. His Jules is, after all, the reason there’s enough life left to fight about after the Big One hits. Koch plays the lone voice of scientific reason with endearing exasperation. Even though natural forces have undermined his efforts to maintain human connections — claiming his siblings and parents, one by one — his search for answers to existential questions is untainted by bitterness or cynicism. On the contrary, Koch gives Jules an amusing can-do spirit in the face of a world inhospitable to his genetic line.
MacPhail’s Jo is more convincing in combat with Jules than in contemplation of her fate. Clad in black, including her backpack, she appears well cast as an angst-addled journalism student who has stumbled into Jules’ bunker while chasing a story about the power of no-strings sex to lift the human spirit. For most of the play, MacPhail is realistically riot-grrl feisty in her perpetual vigilance against Jules’ advances. Here and there, however, one might like to see more nuance and a touch of vulnerability moderating her edgy turn. She can come off like a Green Mountain Derby Dame who refuses to take off her roller skates long after the bout has been lost.
With the entrance of name-tag-wearing Barbara, played with corporate confidence by Carol Ansell Spradling, the time and space of the play’s universe expand in a surprising and satirical direction. Another spoiler is unavoidable: The story of Jules and Jo is merely a museum reenactment of how the future of humanity was secured, with Barbara orchestrating the demonstration from a control booth outfitted with levers, lights and sound effects. Spradling’s Barbara exudes unbridled exuberance for the re-creation myth of humanity and despairs that others, such as those about to pull the plug on the exhibit, could blithely ignore such important history.
Spradling brings jolts of comic energy to Boom as her character struggles to maintain professional composure while one of her life’s passions is about to be quashed. The museum conceit and Boom’s brevity — it runs just about an hour, with no intermission — make the play a close cousin to fiction writer George Saunders’ dystopian minimasterpieces: the novella Pastoralia and the title story in the collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.
Boom may not open the deepest conversation about humanity’s downward spiral, or even about those choices that Alicea sees as central to the new VSC season. Still, the play is laudable for making a risky wager: that imagining humanity’s near-extinction and resurrection can inspire an hour’s worth of laughter. Because this production gambles with such gusto, the show pays off. The planet’s destruction plays as more fun than frightening.
"Boom," written by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, directed by Cristina Alicea, produced by Vermont Stage Company. Wednesday through Saturday, October 10 through 21, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., at FlynnSpace in Burlington. $27-32.50. Info, 863-5966. flynntix.org