Sex! Planet-ruining cataclysms! Loads of booze! “Boom” has all of these things. Never mind that the sex is pathetic and hilarious, the apocalypse takes place offstage, and the booze is nothing but Jim Beam — shouldn’t this be blockbuster material? Probably not. Peter Sinn Nachtreib’s tiny sci-fi extravaganza is a little too brainy for the multiplex: The play’s impact hinges on the aud’s understanding of the complicated nature of hope and their simultaneous ability to laugh at people who, like themselves, almost always get it wrong. This is the way the world ends, Nachtreib explains: not with a bang, but a snicker.
The goofy three-hander is a high-wire act that could easily fall flat in less capable hands, but Nachtreib’s play has come to Ars Nova under the enjoyably crazed tutelage of Alex Timbers, whose theater company, Les Freres Corbusier, gave the world “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant.”
Timbers coaxes the play’s strengths to the foreground. As soon as we fall in love with Lucas Near-Verbrugghe’s amiable weirdo, Jules, we’re ready for whatever strange places “Boom” wants to take us.
Sympathy for Jules is essential, since he effectively kidnaps college student Jo (Megan Ferguson), a furious everygirl who’s twice the man Jules is. Never mind that Jules’ reasons turn out to be, well, reasonable — abduction is creepy.
But the way Near-Verbrugghe plays the character — who says things like “Thank super goodness you’re OK!” — the prospect of an extended period alone with him sounds more like a slumber party than a night of terror. He’s like a Boy Scout, except he’s gay.
A grad student studying fish, Jules is holding Jo hostage because he believes planet Earth is about to undergo emergency renovations — courtesy of a huge, as-yet-undetected comet — and humankind must survive. Jules’ inability to sleep with women is, admittedly, a problem. He has tried to warn people, but his academic paper demonstrating the hypothesis wasn’t received well. “They just coughed and mumbled me out of the Tampa Marriott,” he sighs.
The nuances of his theory are mostly lost on Jo, who hasn’t gotten past the part where she unwillingly donates herself to science, but whenever she tries to leave, she faints.
This is the fault of the play’s third character, Barbara (Susan Wands), who exercises a kind of divine control over the proceedings and pulls a Frankensteinian lever whenever Jo gets too close to the door, causing her to pass out like a scandalized debutante.
It’s not clear who Barbara is or how she’s directing the action until the very end, but she occasionally interrupts the escalating spat between Jo and Jules to explain things like a museum tour guide. Indeed, her character is identified in the program as “a natural history docent,” which is a pleasant way to think about a divine being.
All three characters exist at the mercy of forces larger than they are, and each one holds on to a hope that, put gently, seems improbable. Jo hopes to return to the world as it was; Jules hopes to become the new father of the human race; and Barbara hopes she can make the play last forever.
They won’t get their wishes, but Nachtreib doesn’t withhold them out of spite. He suggests instead that hope is worth holding onto precisely because we don’t know what will happen next, and that it’s worth continuing to live simply to see how the story turns out. It may not be what we wanted, but then, it’ll be something unexpected and new instead.
The play’s punchline, which brings together free will, hopelessness and the life cycles of fish, is neither cheap nor easy, and it suggests Nachtreib has a degree of control over his work that its happy-go-lucky spirit belies.
The finale is too nice to spoil, but this little play about doomsday does, as Barbara says, “underscore the girth of the moment” with an appropriate lack of gravity.