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It will tell you something about Woolly Mammoth’s Boom, perhaps, that my first thought upon seeing the set was: “Kettle drums? Really?”
It will tell you a bit more, I hope, if I say that it’s the serenely loopy Sarah Marshall who strolls on to play them, as well as a large gong, and once or twice a triangle, as the action commences.
And that despite Marshall’s constant, cacophonous presence, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s pixilated post-apocalyptic comedy—or is it a soaring, wonder-filled creation myth?—centers mostly on a queer virgin marine biologist and a journeywoman journalist with anger-management issues and an unfortunate propensity to die (though only briefly) at the oddest moments.
A more unlikely Adam and Eve I’ve yet to meet.
So this is what folks mean, you’ll be thinking ’round about now, when they talk about “a Woolly play?” Well, yes, despite the conspicuous absence of incest—or indeed sex of any kind aside from the implied, or the hoped-for, or the piscine. There’s no murder, either, though the entire planet does eventually get wiped out—which as you might imagine inspires a certain amount of panicky introspection among our lone-survivor heroes.
So yes, Boom—an uproariously funny study of two misfits stranded at world’s end, wondering what on earth selected them for singularity and whether they can possibly measure up—is every inch a Woolly play: It’s literate, coarse, thoughtful, sweet, scabrously inappropriate, wracked by existential anxiety, and wonderfully humane. Actually it’s mostly just wonderful: I haven’t had quite so much fun at the theater, or been quite so consistently surprised, in who knows when.
Nachtrieb’s script employs something like the familiar rhythms of situation comedy, but nearly every setup-punch-line combination comes with a kind of topspin that keeps things feeling fresh. John Vreeke’s staging attends carefully to those rhythms, tightening the pace when the playwright is pouring on the funny and stepping back to let the richer moments breathe.
And the cast—Marshall as a kind of ringmaster-cum-narrator, pulling levers and throwing switches overhead, plus Aubrey Deeker as the researcher and Kimberly Gilbert as the would-be magazine writer—has found the story’s sweet spot, which lies precisely at the intersection of madcap and heartfelt. Not much that happens in Boom would make the slightest sense in what we think of as the real world, but this crew creates a space in which it’s not just OK to laugh along as the absurdities pile up but essential to chuck the skepticism and buy right on in. Which means that when things go wrong (and oh, do they go wrong), it actually stings a bit.
What things? Well, Jules (Deeker) has a family history of extinction—they’ve all met different fates, but the bottom line is that Mom “couldn’t have picked a worse time to go on a tour of un-reinforced masonry in California.” So when his tropical-island research uncovers fish behavior signaling the imminent end of the world, he’s understandably disposed to take evasive action. Retreating to a supply-stocked basement lab, he posts a personal ad on Craigslist. Jules’ hope: That a well-timed one-night stand will become not just an extended visit but an opportunity to repopulate the planet. (The facts of his gayness and his virginity don’t seem to have occurred to him as hurdles.)
But then every science experiment comes with unanticipated variables, and in this one they include a critical miscalculation involving the location of the food stash and the resolutely anti-childbirth posture of the deeply messed-up woman who responds to his ad. (“You don’t want eggs from this basket,” seethes Gilbert’s Jo. “They’re cracked.”) Can Jules convince her otherwise? Will Jo’s recurring blackouts, or her cynicism about humanity’s stewardship of the planet, overrule her survival impulse? Will the Jack Daniels run out before the oxygen supply?
Conception and its unlikelihood being critical to the story at hand, Marshall’s narrator character (her name is Barbara, and she is singularly, strangely marvelous) gets a moment in the spotlight to spin a highly colorful tale about her own. It’s an anecdote, and an impulse, that make no sense at all in context, but that seem perfectly, whimsically wonderful once you realize that Boom’s larger concern is our twinned eternal hungers for hard historical facts and for holistic creation stories—for I-was-there scientific research and for deeper metaphors that help bind our data to our sense of self.
That showstopper of a creation myth—Barbara admits, cheerfully, to embellishing it—comes packaged in language as grand and gaudy as anything King James’ scribes ever translated from the Vulgate, and it’s rather more joyful and exuberant besides. Good words, both, for Boom; its anxieties and its ambiguities and its accidents notwithstanding, this is one end-of-the-world story that’s likely to leave you grinning from ear to ear.