The end of the world is played for hip humor in Kitchen Theatre’s Boom
If arch-absurdist Eugene Ionesco had been reincarnated as a writer for Saturday Night Live, he would have been a lot like Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. That would combine a break-the-boundaries dramaturgy with a topicality yielding broad belly laughs. If such an unlikely author (who is also a biologist) were asked to stuff with laughter a cockamamie concept out of, say, Ray Bradbury, about the origins of life on earth, evolution, ruination from collision with a comet, and subsequent regeneration, then you’d have Boom, a rollicking comedy of ideas and lust, now at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company.
Not that the plot of this 100-minute intermissionless fun fest cannot be followed, especially if you can check with attentive friends when it’s over. What we have here is a hotfoot for pedestrian reviewers who might feel the need to try to explain all the plot twists. Producing a map of Boom’s many zigzags would just make the reporter look more than a bit foolish. Anyway, plot is not what Boom is about. Instead, much of the fun comes from trying to guess where the next improbable turn might come from, like driving a jetfueled dodge-em car across a congested court.
First we see a raised set enclosing a box, in which lies a sterile-looking laboratory. We will learn that it is not only underground but underwater. Prominent downstage is a brightly lighted fish tank; upstage are cabinets, all designed by Daniel Zimmerman.
Entering before the action begins is a tall, thin African-American woman wearing a dress of unusual sheen, with her hair piled in a design we’re not used to seeing, perhaps suggestive of marine life. She introduces herself as Barbara (Ronica V. Reddick) and goes over to a console beside the set, where she controls sound and lights with big levers, plays big kettle drums and, eventually, strikes chimes. At first we think she’s a hip version of the director in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author or the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Then again, she only highlights what we see with sound cues and drum rolls. That will change, though. Reddick, a Syracuse native, is such a magnetic performer we can’t take our eyes off her.
Jules (Jimmy King) appears to be an unshaven, sandy-haired, lonely marine biology graduate student in search of company.
He’s just placed a personal ad with Craig’s List, stressing the importance of sexual performance. His respondent is hard-driving, dark brunette Jo (Alison Scaramella), who is also a journalism student. Jules might have placed the ad, but it is Jo who demands that the couple get down to business and pronto. She screams at him to take off his pants, and continues to bellow as he hops around on one foot, unable to get a trouser leg over a shoe. When he’s down to his briefs Jo pulls him over to a downstage cot, on to which they both jump.
As so often happens with personals, on Craig’s List or anywhere, Jules turns out to have left out some high significant details. “I’m a homosexual,” he confesses with his pelvis thrust against hers. “That’s why I’m having a difficult time.”
It seems that Jules’ vision is longer term.
Through his close observation of the fish in the tank, he has determined that aquatic creatures have an uncanny power to discern distant movements in the cosmos. What they tell him is that a comet will soon strike the earth, wreaking all the devastation of the one 60 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and countless other species. This is the Boom of the title. Assisting him, Barbara parades outside the set carrying pictures of the squirmy species that the earlier meteor could not extinguish. So some life will survive. And to that end, Jules and Jo prepare for the time when they as two humans must take on the task—through some means—for the regeneration of the race.
Jo has pulled off her sexy dark wig to reveal unkempt brown hair, making her somehow more like Jules. She may like sex but not babies. In one of Boom’s most cutting lines, she runs her fingertips across her abdomen and seethes, “You don’t want eggs from this basket: They’re cracked.” Further verbal revelations will lead us to see both of them differently. It may still feel to Jo that she’s been captured by a madman, and can’t open the door. But Jo brings unrelated issues. From time to time she just collapses in a heap. Jules thinks she’s dead. Then again, she also says, “Random sex is the last glimmer of hope in a decaying society.”
Director Samuel Buggeln also helmed Kitchen’s Speech and Debate last season and knows his way through hip contemporary material, as if David Ives were adapting David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The verbal jousting between Jules and Jo provides most of the laughs in this breathless, never-flagging comedy. There’s never been a male-female comedy team quite like them, and not just because their dynamics keep changing with the continuing revelations and admissions.
At first Jo’s energy drives the action. She’s clamoring for sex, and Scaramella’s delivery of her profanity-laced aggression cuts like a chain saw. King’s Jules appears to be a reactive, defensive, bobbling character, like Stan Laurel with a sandy beard. But he has other strengths.
It is not Jules’ barely present masculinity that allows him to pull equal with Jo and then forge ahead. Rather it is his command of scientific knowledge. This is why the playwright’s training as a biologist himself is not just an asterisk. Without turning himself into Mr. Wizard, he speaks of the origins of life on earth from random particles connecting from distant space. This story sounds wondrous, if scientific rather than magical. It also runs close to the narrative in Stephen Jay Gould’s widely read but still controversial Wonderful Life (1990).
Science still competes with myth. At this point Barbara proceeds from being an assistant and observer to being a player. She crosses the barrier of the box surrounding Jules’ laboratory and takes over the discourse. What she spins out feels like an enigmatic anecdote too whimsical to follow. What she builds spins into a creation myth fit to occupy a slot in the opening chapter of Larousse Encyclopedia of World Mythology, like that of some exotic people, the Trobriand Islanders or the aboriginal hairy Ainu of Japan.
Nachtrieb’s Boom is a silly-looking play with non sequiturs, a speeded-up sequence run to the music of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and jokes about the impossibility of finishing Thomas Pynchon novels. But it’s also one of the most intellectually ambitious stage works seen in these parts this year.
This production runs through March 13. See Times Table for information.
Doomsday drollery: From left, Alison Scaramella, Jimmy King and Ronica V. Reddick in Kitchen Theatre’s Boom.