The Elements Unite to Create Woolly's 'Boom'

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company must have fun sorting through the latest batch of weird, because they've unearthed a grandly wacked-out apocalypse fantasy in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's "Boom." This is boy-meets-girl stuff that's not just twisted, but gleefully torqued.

Jules is a lonely marine biology grad student who's just placed a racy personal ad online; Jo is the randy journalism major who's answered the call. Yet Jules is oddly reluctant, and the offbeat, high-strung Jo keeps passing out as she tries to leave his strange biology lab-cum-dorm room.

Oh, and there's a crazy lady on a balcony, who's overhead pulling levers and occasionally talking to us like a "Twilight Zone" version of the Stage Manager in "Our Town."

That is enough to send director John Vreeke and his inspired team heavenward, for the designers and the three spot-on performers seem to catch every pensive and hilarious breeze that blows through Nachtrieb's science-fictiony script. That the production is thinking big is clear even in the pre-show music, which gets grins just by pumping in such classical chestnuts as the "William Tell" Overture and the "Anvil Chorus" from "Il Trovatore." (Beethoven and Samuel Barber get serious shout-outs as the story unfolds; whether this puckish musical upscaling of emotions is Vreeke's or Nachtrieb's, it works.)

Designer Thomas Kamm makes beautiful use of the Woolly space, provocatively angling a video screen over a stage that thrusts well into the audience. That screen gives us close-ups of Barbara, the docent whose connection to the not-quite-romantic story she's supervising gets more interesting all the time -- and not just because of Sarah Marshall's delectable, characteristically intense oddball turn in the role.

At first, Barbara seems like an unwelcome interruption of the hip screwball dialogue that Nachtrieb pens for Jules and Jo. Their "meet cute" does indeed fall on a globally cataclysmic day that, um, complicates their hookup. (Plus in the ad, he didn't mention that he's gay.) The script's high-flying banter is glib, ironic, profane -- pure catnip for Aubrey Deeker and Kimberly Gilbert, two of the busiest and most resourceful young actors in town.

Deeker is ideally cast as the peculiar scientist who's potentially creepy but probably okay. His Jules is painfully earnest; the character's wooing is inept but thoughtful, in an end-of-days kind of way. Deeker is terrific with everything from Jules's iffy kissing to the academic vindication he feels when his disaster prediction comes true. His performance is tender and funny, with just the right streak of bizarre.

Gilbert, meanwhile, is a terror as Jo, who sours quickly once she realizes she won't get the hot evening she came for. Jo has an appealing ferocity that eventually has shades of Linda Hamilton in "Terminator 2," even with those pesky sudden blackouts. (Along with everything else, that eventually gets explained in Nachtrieb's crazy-logical script.) Gilbert, like Deeker, not only nails the quirky lines, but also leaps boldly into Vreeke's escalating physical staging as Barbara's role begins to make sense and "Boom's" cosmic take on beginnings and endings rounds into view.

It's a happy fit all around, one of those charmed evenings when a company finds a play that's squarely in its wheelhouse and gets just the right people involved. The writing is terribly smart -- Nachtrieb knows his science well enough to goof off skillfully while retaining a healthy sense of wonder -- and Vreeke and company match that standard with savvy of their own. Boom, indeed.

Boom, by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Directed by John Vreeke. About 100 minutes. Lighting design, Colin K. Bills; sound, Neil McFadden; costumes, Ivania Stack. Through Dec. 7 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit

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