THEATER "Stop the world, I want to get off" — a hoary phrase of pop weltschmerz that only now strikes me as a choice bit of narcissistic prurience, thanks to Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. The phrase doesn't actually figure in his latest work, a date-play apocalypse called boom, but when you see the play you too will encounter unexpected resonances between world-shaking existential dread and the most banal of Craigslist innuendo.
The personals posting that actually gets the ball rolling promises something more like "sex to change the course of the world." Finally, some truth in self-advertising. For as it happens, the man who placed the ad, Jules (a delightfully earnest Nicholas Pelczar), is a young marine biologist who through diligent study of the nervous diurnal habits of tropical reef fish has deduced the end of the world by comet — in what, by the opening of the action, is about a few minutes time. Accordingly, he has lured an eager and feisty young journalism student named Jo (a terrific, wound-up and wounding Blythe Foster) to his creepily well-stocked underground lab-lair to, little does she realize, repopulate the soon-to-be-barren earth. Never mind that Jules is a big gay virgin, or that Jo turns out to detest the very thought of babies: this is the End of the World, people.
But of course rare is the hookup that matches what it promises, fate of humanity notwithstanding. Given our would-be Adam and his don't-even-think-about-it Eve, things look increasingly dire for a race suddenly dependent on two maladapted virgins whose strange backgrounds — he, the sole survivor of a cursedly accident-prone family; she, hard-wired to faint at the first sign of danger — may or may not bode well from an evolutionary point of view. On this Darwinian date with destiny, Jules and Jo rank as colder fish than their tropical roommates, staring back at them from the aquarium center stage.
Such contrasts between the mundane and the profound make for good comedy, especially in the very sharp production at Marin Theatre Company helmed by Ryan Rilette, but they also spark insight in a work that, for all its winning humor, ponders without pretension serious themes none too arbitrary here at what does kind of look like the end of the line for life as we know it.
boom is never heavy about it, but it thoughtfully celebrates the ambiguous nature of things, or indeed the ambiguity in Nature itself. It's a bracing tonic — whether in comedy or tragedy, you can always make my entendre a double. Nachtrieb and MTC serve up a stiff one, spiked with an even headier irony: the story we are watching of a heavily freighted blind date gone horribly wrong is itself actually a museum exhibit from the far future side of our impending doom, operated by a slowly unraveling docent (played with Chaplin-esque aplomb by an irresistible Joan Mankin) during what turns out to be her last day on the job, after many creatively frustrated work-years under heartless management.
But Nachtrieb, the San Francisco–based playwright responsible for some of the more successful and smart comedies of recent years (Hunter Gatherers; T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common), has never shied from the deeper social implications of his effortlessly hilarious send-ups of familiar human foibles — probably because his characters are always so lovingly rooted in their particular time and place, they just rise up naturally from his stories. boom, which is reportedly the most-popularly produced new play in the country this year, is no exception. Its human touch makes its posthuman dimensions somehow strangely reassuring. It's as if, in almost diffident fashion, the play succeeds where the dogged journalism student in Jo would: in wringing a modest moral (and a final A) from the blackest hole of tragedy and the detritus of cliché — you know, "in some small, stupid way that's sort of uplifting."