Tuesday, March 2, 2010

It's the end of the world as we know it

Scott Sweatt proposes, and Karen MacDonald disposes, in boom.

We all fall down and go "boom" in boom (now at the New Rep through March 13). As in all of us. Everybody. Yep, it's the end of the world as we know it, but playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb still feels fine. Because in the larger scheme of things - as in the very large, geological-age scheme of things - life goes on. Just maybe not our version of it.

Or at least that's the amusing message of this latest work from the Millennial School of Quirk. In Nachtrieb's end-of-the-worldview, even the apocalypse should be set in lower case (like his title) because there's always another world out there to replace this one. So just chill out and get over yourself, mankind! It's all going to be ok, or at least meta-ok.

Because the meaning of everything depends on how you frame it. That's why the set of boom is strangely bifurcated: half the stage is occupied by a fall-out shelter built by nervous, nerdy Jules (Scott Sweatt), the other half by a funny control booth in which aging-hippie Barbara (Karen MacDonald) either pulls levers like some addled Wizard of Oz or just bangs a gong like the ghost of Keith Moon.

We slowly gather that Barbara is a kind of docent in bifocals, and that Jules isn't the "real" Jules at all, but rather a simulation of Jules in a high-tech diorama in some Museum of the Future. The "play" as it exists is just the future's best guess at what actually transpired when poor Jules realized that a comet was about to go rogue and fry the Earth, and tricked bitter, lonely Jo (Zofia Gozynska) into joining him in his bachelor pad/fallout shelter for "sex that will change the world." Or maybe save it.

Actually, make that a big "maybe." For as the world is reduced to a cinder outside the shelter's doors, we discover that fussy Jules is gay and damaged Jo hates babies. So the world has thrown a wrench - or maybe a boomerang - into this New Age Noah's desperate plan to save it, and a form of bleak hilarity ensues. For the most part.

But then again, nothing is really as it seems in Nachtrieb's existential diorama. The "past" is utterly unstable (the diorama stops and starts in fits), so what does that mean about the present - or the future? Indeed, even the seemingly omnipotent Barbara - who bangs away at her drum kit to emphasize what she thinks are the important parts of the story - is framed by another, unseen level of authority, and at times her exhibit seems to almost have a mind of its own. "Reality," the playwright tells us (maybe once too often) is a slippery concept. And since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?

So somebody once said, who also felt that there's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will. That seems to be Nachtrieb's point, too, even if he's a good deal more upbeat about it than a certain great Dane was. For as we realize at the last moment, (spoiler alert!) the hapless Jules really is a hero, and really did save life on earth. Then again, maybe Jo did. At any rate, the moral consequences of our actions indeed are profound; we just can't be sure what they're going to be. So while Jo wails at one point that she's "looking for a story of hope," she might pause to consider whether she's actually in one.

In Bridget Kathleen O'Leary's solid production at the New Rep, most of these witty ideas come over - although not, apparently, to many of the major critics, who in general seem to have missed the point of the play (no, for once I'm not going to name names, but you know who you are). The production is anchored by the wonderful Karen MacDonald, who turns Barbara into a hilariously ditzy boomer who seems to have been teleported into the distant future direct from San Francisco, complete with hair extensions and a blouse emblazoned with a big bloom (for "flower child"). (Actually, MacDonald's characterization doesn't line up with what we eventually learn of Barbara's true identity, but it's so sweetly observed we don't really care.) Scott Sweatt meanwhile makes of Jules an appealingly goofy, if utterly determined, micro-manager, and if Zofia Gozynska doesn't get as far with the punky, potty-mouthed Jo, then it must be admitted that Nachtrieb seems to have left her with at least one too many bizarre thematic points to cover. The big gap at the New Rep, I'm afraid, is Jarrod Bray's set, which simply isn't stylish or clever enough to put over the play's concept or air-quote tone (it doesn't even look much like a diorama). Somehow this seems to throw the show's occasional longeurs into higher relief. But then again, it's not the end of the world.