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Monday, April 14, 2008

BOOM.

The place is 54th St., just west of 10th Ave., and right next door to The Colbert Report's studio. It is a small, but elegant, theater called Ars Nova.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the closing night performance of Boom, a show I'd been eagerly looking forward to seeing since it opened a month or so ago. This was one of those rare cases of judging a book by its cover, and its cover alone. We've all made those impulsive purchases because we like how something looks, and we all know that sometimes those purchases pay off in spades.

This was one of those times.

I went alone, which was not a bad thing in my mind. I was eager to see how my hunches were faring these days, and was relieved that I didn't have to be concerned about whether my company was having a good time. The theater was small, but nice, with a dynamic light design to keep me mildly interested for the half hour or more before the show began. The curtain was a brazen red.

With no fanfare, the "narrator" walked down the aisle and began the performance. She made a little bit of noise on a drum, accompanied by quirky facial gestures and a rigid posture. A cheap laugh, perhaps, but the audience seemed to appreciate it (though I was skeptical).

When the curtain was pulled back, it revealed the scene that would remain the milieu for the duration - a meek laboratory with cabinetry, a futon, a small countertop, a table, and a fish aquarium with four fish swimming within it.

The plot is simple. According to the site:

"In Peter Sinn Nachtreib’s BOOM, something is about to explode and the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. When Jo answers Jules’ casual- encounters ad seeking ‘intensely significant coupling’, she has no idea what she is in for. Stuck in his makeshift lab-turned-shelter and surrounded by cabinets full of bourbon, a lifetime supply of tampons and only a tank of fish for company, they’re in for one hell of a blind date."

Jo answers Jules's craigslist "casual encounters" ad for, among other things, "intense coupling."

To add a bit of my own detailed information: Jules is a homosexual biologist who has calculated the imminent arrival of a comet that will wipe out all of civilization. Jo is a twenty-two-year-old college girl studying journalism and looking for a story of genuine hope that doesn't include an array of restricted topics such as the homeless, the disabled, etc. So she has answered Jules's ad in hopes that it is in the fleeting moments of random sexual passion that she will find that hope.

I'll summarize so I can get to the meat: yes, the two lock themselves in. Yes Jo is pissed. Yes, the comet does indeed land and destroy all of civilization and most life on earth. Yes, the two manage to help propagate life on earth (but no, not in the way you think).

This play was fantastic and entertaining, despite the premise being so ludicrous (every time I re-read the description online, I got slightly more skeptical.) It doesn't seem like it would make for good drama, but it does. There are actually two narratives running at once: Jules and Jo, but also the slowly unfurling story of the quirky, passionate narrator herself. It turns out this show is actually an exhibit in the far future that shows how life came to (continue to) exist on Earth, and this narrator is the one who is in charge of the display. Her story contributes a very interesting element of self-awareness, and her passion yields surprisingly fruitful emotional territory.

To return a moment to Jules and Jo... It is a well-worn structure, at its heart. A man and a woman, who hate each other from the outset (well, minus when Jo still thinks Jules is straight and that he wants to have sex with her) suddenly come to appreciate and love each other despite all odds, or rather as a result of them. The two reveal insecurities and vulnerabilities to one another despite their inclinations, and when their perspectives finally come about face, it is a glorious moment. There are a precious few minutes where they actually get to relish in their feelings for one another before their plot comes to its exciting, dramatic denoument. But it is magical, dear readers. Make no mistake.

What makes this show really beautiful is the narrator's desperate, noble desire to save this "show," a show of which she has been orchestrator since its inception, but which her superiors have deemed to be ineffectual and expendable. "Tonight is the last night I get to do this," she says with great conviction and lament.

Boom is a curiosity of fits and starts. For a while, when the story of Jo and Jules reaches some kind of head, it is frozen in time by the narrator so that she can tell a joke, or some kind of story. There are times when these interruptions are a nuisance, but only just enough to make one realize how much one is invested in the main story. By the end, this woman's interjections do not freeze the main narrative, but rather run tandem to and coincide with it - meld with it. The two become one story. The emotional peaks and intensities of the two collide and compliment each other: two narratives separated by massive amounts of time, one commenting on the other, but together creating a whole larger than the sum of its parts. On several occasions I found myself teary-eyed by its profundity.

While I am always thrown off by theater acting at first (the strangeness of the reality that I am watching performances, and that they know they are performing, and that we mutually recognize that we're there at a specific moment for each other, always puts me in my head, whereas film tends to convince me that I am a voyeur looking upon an already-documented event), I was able to settle in and accept the peculiarities that I don't always like about the style. Each actor gave his or her role the fervor required to make a believable character. No one hesitated or held back, and I believe that as a result, the show is a success. Such a bizarre performance could easily be gimmicky, slapstick, or otherwise falsified, but enough risk was taken that the show was not relegated to such half-witted atrocities.

Another huge success of Boom is its execution of climax through the cunning exploitation of effects. The crashing of the comet is brilliantly invoked through relatively simple means. Gradually, the light outside the door gets brighter and brighter. Then, the room goes absolutely silent, and the lights go out. In the tension of this moment comes the ever-so-slightly-delayed "crash," and light landing on a cascade of smoke pouring from the ceiling. Nothing is visible on stage. When the lights come back on, the set is in total disarray. The characters lay unconscious on the floor, the shelves have all come somewhat loose from the walls and opened, spilling out contents. The lights are out save for two lights running on a backup battery. It is a stellar use of relatively simple toys and tricks, running on a small budget that creates all the magnitude of a giant rock hitting the surface of the Earth. Like the scene in Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited," wherein Adrien Brody and the boy he tries to save are pummeled under the surface of the water, or in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" when the helicopter crashes, the impact is visceral and startling: enhanced, surprisingly, by the lack of sound.

Likewise, the final scene when the door is opened at last is also bolstered by effects. A blinding light, the rise in the volume of everything, the particles blowing in from outside, and the urgency of the characters' love for each other and need to leave all come together brilliantly to enhance the ultimate climax of the entire play. No special effects needed, just a decent light and good acting.

As any good work of literature, film, or theater does, the play reminded me of the beauty of storytelling (in much the same way that "Paris, Je T'aime" did for me with filmmaking only a few weeks ago) and acting. The actors were not simply acting, they were truly invested in what they were doing. When they returned for curtain call, the lead actress was crying. It was closing night, and she had given it everything. It was clear that she was attached to this project, those people, that character. And I found, when the lights came on, and everyone was leaving, that I, too, was sad. The source of the emotion was a sudden sense of loss. I had grown attached to these characters, even if they were a little over the top, and the story, even if it was a little outlandish. I was stunned by the fact that something that, in pieces, looks nothing but comical, was able to come together in such a real, vibrant, and stunning show of what it means to be human, to be alive. It tapped into something very real, and very necessary. It succeeded in being a good drama.

Magic doesn't just happen in the movies.

BOOM starred:
Megan Ferguson - "Jo"
Lucas Near-Verbrugghe - "Jules"
Susan Wands - "Barbara" ("narrator")

Written by:
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb

Directed by:
Alex Timbers

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