Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Boom," The Most-Produced Play in America

I'm being a lazy blogger, so you get another way-after-the-fact write-up of a play that is now closed. BUT! The play in question is boom, by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, which just happens to be the most-produced play this year at American regional theaters--so it is obviously worthy of your attention, and if you live somewhere other than the Bay Area, there's a chance it might be coming soon to a theatre near you!

I was pretty impressed to learn that boom is 2009-10's most-produced play. Usually that honor goes to a recent Broadway hit that can be done with a small cast and limited budget--with extra credit if the play won the Pulitzer: Doubt, Proof, I Am My Own Wife. boom had a small New York production at Ars Nova in 2008, but that doesn't seem to have set the American theater world afire. Yet somehow, productions of it are springing up around the country.

I saw boom at Marin Theater Company--which added an extra layer to this feel-good story of the little play that could, because Nachtrieb* is a local writer who grew up in Marin County.

Nachtrieb admitted in the playbill that practical concerns obviously have a bearing on boom's popularity: it needs just three actors and one set. The nice thing about boom, however, is that its premise perfectly justifies the small cast and single location. These days there are a lot of "small-cast, one-set plays" that require all of the actors to play multiple roles and require the set to be a nondescript heap of platforms that can stand in for a dozen different locations. This is certainly a valid way of making theater, but it sometimes suggests that the playwright's vision has outstripped his limited budget and he has had to compromise in order to make his play "produceable." boom makes no such compromises.

At its most basic level, it's a variant on the old "two incompatible people trapped in a room together" situation. The characters are Jules, a scientist convinced that a giant comet is about to slam into Earth and annihilate the human species, and Jo, a college student, whom Jules lured into his reinforced bunker under false pretenses so that she can survive and help repopulate the earth. The problems? Jules is socially awkward, gay, and a virgin; Jo is sarcastic, hates babies, and has a mysterious medical condition. And then the comet does slam into Earth. And the real problems start.

That's also about the time that the structure gets more complex and the third character enters the play: Barbara, a middle-aged woman who periodically interrupts Jules and Jo's story to talk to the audience, treating us as though we are watching a presentation in a science museum. No longer is it just a "two people trapped in a room" play. There's a great twist at the end, which also affords directors and designers some intriguing possibilities for staging the play (i.e. how much do they want to telegraph the twist?). Most productions of a play like Doubt are going to look very similar to each other, but I could imagine two equally valid productions of boom that took very different approaches to the material.

With a set-up like this, boom is a very funny play (another reason that theater companies like it). But what I admire most about it is that it manages to go beyond being funny, or even being clever, and make a statement. Lots of people could write ninety minutes' worth of funny scenes between Jules and Jo, trapped in their science lab/bunker--it's a solid premise and the characters have a lot to argue about. But fewer writers would dare to do as Nachtrieb does, and end the play with a monologue that gently but sincerely states the theme. The monologue doesn't just wrap up the play--it expands the play and makes you realize that it is much more than a three-character drama. It makes you feel good, even a little awed, about being human and alive on this planet and the product of evolution. Sometimes I think writers these days are afraid of sincerity, afraid that people will make fun of them if they dare to suggest a moral to their story. So the ending of boom feels like a risk--and Nachtrieb pulls it off.

I went to see boom with a writer friend of mine who was trying to put together an entry for the STAGE Competition for plays about science and technology (the deadline was today--I hope he made it!). Afterward, we agreed that boom is an excellent example of a play about science and a good one to take as inspiration. And actually, I am in the middle of reading Brecht's Life of Galileo, perhaps the granddaddy of plays about science, and it is affecting me similarly to the way that boom did--making me grateful to live on this planet, and to be gifted with reason, curiosity, and confidence in science.

That boom's success has given me increased confidence in the programming choices of American regional theaters, however, is even better.

*I know people who know this guy. I sat two seats away from him at a show I went to earlier this fall and chatted with his brother. I'll probably meet him one of these days. So I feel weird referring to him as "Nachtrieb." But I'd also feel weird referring to him as "Peter." Oh, what to do? Should I get all initialey, like people do for David Foster Wallace, and start referring to him as PSN?

Photo from Marin Theater: Jules (Nicholas Pelczar) tells Jo (Blythe Foster) about his new theory.

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