SALT LAKE CITY—If you’re searching through Craigslist and find an ad offering “sex to change the world,” you probably wouldn’t expect that to entail a catastrophic apocalypse, a mandate to repopulate the human race, and a fish tank. But that’s exactly what Salt Lake Acting Company has in store in their production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s hysterical and quirky not-so-romantic comedy boom.
When Jules, a highly awkward marine biologist, observes unusual patterns in the fish he’s studying, he concludes that the fish sense an oncoming cataclysmic event. Converting his subterranean lab into a bunker stocked with supplies, Jules seeks his Eve through the chance of fate and internet solicitation.
Jo, a caustic and cynical student journalist, arrives expecting an evening of casual, meaningless sex but finds herself caught underground for a projected two or four years when it turns out Jules is right.
After a comet hits earth, decimating most existing life, Jules celebrates the vindication of his theories; however, a series of circumstances thwart his determination to repopulate the species. In addition to Jo’s growing hatred of Jules and utter contempt for children and the prospect of motherhood, Jules is also a virgin and gay. Oh, and did I mention there’s also a woman named Barbara on the side of the stage, a museum exhibit curator dressed like a stewardess, who keeps pulling levers to control the action of the scene and make Jo faint every time she tries to leave Jules’s bunker?
Witty, wacky, and wonderful, boom offers a delightful evening of blissful laughter and poignant contemplation. Nachtrieb’s script conflates edenic origin narratives and the mythos of faith with scientific principles and historical preservation.
Faith and science co-exist in this world; both are celebrated and ridiculed in entertaining and dynamic ways. As Jules states after the comet hits, “It’s not like we’re in some sort of lab test . . . Okay, so we are in a lab and we are being tested . . . .” boom contemplates the evolutionary moments: when creative chaos happens, when things that could keep on going along as they are somehow stop following their instincts for one moment and change everything, when species and individuals grow.
After SLAC’s production of Millennium Approaches failed to meet my expectations and proved a little lackluster for me, I found boom increasingly magnificent; not only because it rejuvenated my faith in the unending prowess of SLAC, but also because I felt this production of boom captured the essence of the “Threshold of Revelation” which Angels in America lacked discussed but failed to manifest. When Prior and Harper meet in the first act of Millennium Approaches, they exist within a paradoxical space where they concede the terribly finite limitations of the human imagination while also receiving revelation and coming to a knowledge beyond their previous comprehensions.
It is that dual notion of preservation and progression when everything is about to be “cracked wide open” that is the essence of boom: the earth gets hit by a comet and the sole survivors of the human race are two people who, as Jo declares, “are not the kind of people who survive.” An awkward, gay marine biologist and a cynical, violent skeptic in an underground lab make for a farcical substitution for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; and yet their conflation and incompatibility facilitates moments of evolution—points where Jules and Jo can each step outside of their terribly finite limitations of habitual and instinctual behavior and participate in a transcendent awakening and discovery. Ironically, the sexless and antagonist relationship fosters the possibility for a different notion of sex and procreation to change the world. Nachtrieb’s script is as poetic and poignant as it is hilarious and intelligent.
The cast for SLAC’s production are fabulous. David Fetzer’s Jules combines a powerful vulnerability with a genuine optimism. Goofy and clumsy, Fetzer’s mannerisms for Jules perfectly captured the characteristics of all of my nerdy scientist friends . . . sometimes in eerily accurate way.
Emily Burnworth’s depiction of Jo helped me understand Jo’s character in ways I had not considered when I read the script; though I must also confess that I found her performance the weakest aspect of the production. Jules describes Jo as a vacuum of joy. Her lines read as highly cynical. Burnworth seemed to reveal a vulnerability in Jo which matched as much as it opposed Jules’s weaknesses, whereas the script is designed so Jo can breathe as a truly caustic character. Burnworth’s characterization lacked the darker, cynical pessimism Jo needs to function as a jolting binary to Jules’s hapless optimism.
In a scene where Jo describes her decision to reply to Jules’s ad for sex, Burnworth plays the explanation as ambitious—there’s an optimism and enthusiasm in being right about the hopeless state of the human race—a characteristic fairly antithetical to Jo. The performance is consistent and strong, but it did not read with the text as well as it could have. That said, I also think Jo is definitely the hardest role in boom. It’s saying something when you have to say that you don’t think you liked how the character was played because you found yourself liking the character too much while watching the play.
And in changing gears, let me say that not enough can be said in praise of Holly Fowers’s portrayal of Barbara. I adore Barbara; she is one of my favorite characters I have ever read in a play. One part living history museum curator, one part deus ex machina (operator of and the device itself), and one part Disney animatronic supervisor, Barbara is so delightful and charming that it is impossible not to love her. Flowers hits each line with such resounding commitment. The script is written so that Fowers has lines which are not scripted but are instead gestural suggestions that are supposed to indicate an idea of things that she can’t or won’t specifically say. It is up to the actress (possibly in connection with the director) to decide how each expression will look. What Fowers came up with seemed so organic and her enthusiasm was simply infectious. I learned in the program that boom marks her SLAC debut; as an audience member committed to attending shows at SLAC, I certainly hope to see her in a production there again soon.
boom does contain profanity and the subject material does discuss sex. I did not find it crude or obscene, but audiences should be aware that this is not a show for the whole family. With that small caveat, I highly recommend finding time to fit into your schedule. It is a powerful comedy that will leave you satisfied emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. boom contributes marvelously to SLAC’s celebratory season honoring their 40th anniversary of operation and you don’t want to miss it.