Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's creationist comedy about the end of the world is, excuse the pun, built for disaster. Apocalyptic commentaries on theories of evolution tend not to go over big, and Boom is as funny as it is smart — always a dangerous combination when one is attempting to entertain Phoenicians. And please, spare me your angry e-mails — I wasn't sure I understood what I'd just seen on Actors Theatre's stage at the Herberger, either. Fortunately my spouse is from New York and, therefore, smarter. As we walked to the parking garage, he gave me his thoughts on what may have just happened in the story we'd just seen.
In short, that story is this: A young marine biology student named Jules has determined that Earth is about to be struck by a comet. Because he's unable to convince anyone of this, he prepares his underground laboratory for doomsday. Believing that, once the dust settles, it'll be up to him to repopulate the planet, Jules places a sex ad on Craiglist that is answered by Jo, a journalism student who plans to write a paper on the quickie she and Jules have that night. The pair argues, mostly because Jules is gay and unable to have sex with Jo and because Jo doesn't believe his comet story, doesn't like being held captive, and really wants to get laid.
That part I got. But who exactly is Barbara, the woman who may or may not be controlling the young pair's actions from a booth above them? I hoped, as I watched her pull levers and play a big bass drum, that she would turn out to be God, and that Nachtrieb's play (which almost from the outset had me squirming with glee) would turn out to be a comic discourse on atheism.
Boom continues through November 8 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street in Phoenix. Call 602-253-6701 or visit Actors Theatre.
I won't tell you what the play does finally proclaim, or who exactly Barbara is, or why or how the story's subtleties are evasive — only that they add up to a payoff that's both a surprise and a pleasure, and well worth the wait, thanks to three spectacular performances and some stylish direction from Ron May, who's rather quickly established himself as one of our most reliable local talents.
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As Jules, Samuel E. Wilkes is consistently charming, striking the perfect balance between comically nelly and confidently optimistic that he's made the right move. It's imperative that we love Jules; otherwise we'd have to hate him for tricking poor Jo, who thinks she's come to Jules' lab for anonymous sex.
Jo is a hurricane of sarcasm and appealing mannerisms, the sort of frenetic person that Kerry McCue was, as they say, born to play. McCue finds real charm in a mouthy malcontent, and I'm certain I wouldn't have liked this bundle of raw, angry nerves as well had Jo been played by another actress.
Except maybe Cathy Dresbach. It's a wonder actors want to work with this woman, whose presence onstage is so commanding that she is memorable even in repose. As we exited the theater last Saturday night, my spouse and I kept coming back to how the only thing we liked more than Nachtrieb's comically complex story was the way that Ms. Dresbach, as the mysterious Barbara, presided over it.