Have humans put the universe through the heavy-duty cycle when it really needed a quick spin on delicate? It’s hard not to get carried away with the metaphorical possibilities of the laundromat that’s a key setting in Rorschach Theatre’s “Truth & Beauty Bombs: A Softer World.” Directed and conceived by Jenny McConnell Frederick, this interesting if not wholly absorbing production interweaves five story lines by five playwrights, creating a fictional reality that — despite recurring themes of apocalypse, death and missing socks — remains generally upbeat.
The production draws inspiration from “A Softer World,” a defunct Web comic created by Joey Comeau and Emily Horne. Rorschach provided five darkly humorous examples of the comic to playwrights Randy Baker, Norman Allen, Heather McDonald, Shawn Northrip and Alexandra Petri, who responded with narratives. Led by Baker, the team subsequently collaborated to give the package some cohesion. (Baker and Frederick are Rorschach’s artistic directors.)
Each of the story lines turns its back on naturalism. In Northrip’s relatively eventful “Cupcakes,” two squabbling bank robbers (Sarah Taurchini and Grady Weatherford) find love that transcends death. Allen’s “After the Bombs” follows three individuals (Emily Kester, Robert Pike and Christian Sullivan) who have survived a planet-ravaging cataclysm.
In “My Laundromat Eats Hope,” by Petri (who writes for The Washington Post), a depressed woman (Kendall Helblig) becomes a traveling companion to Hope (Tori Boutin, working in broad comic strokes). Irrepressibly perky (“ ‘Cozy’ is just a dressier ‘claustrophobic!’ ” she cheerfully remarks at one point), Hope has discovered that washing machines are portals that link far-flung parts of the space-time continuum.
In a quieter vein, McDonald’s almost-sentimental “Astronaut Training” concerns a musician, a minister and an aging hippie (Frank Britton, Scott McCormick and Sara Barker) who gradually discover common bonds. The production’s most compelling performances grace Baker’s mysterious “Objects in the Night Sky,” about a photographer with eyesight problems (Daniel Corey) and an energetic writer (Sara Dabney Tisdale) who is striving to save a laundromat from closure.
Brian Gillick designed the deliberately squalid laundromat set, which encompasses the partitions and netting drapes that give the space — the stage of the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lang Theatre — some intimacy. Brian S. Allard devised the lighting, which deploys the odd touch of vivid pink to evoke apocalyptic sunsets.
“Truth & Beauty Bombs” does not look to be a play with shelf-life. In one weakness, the script dutifully trots out the punch lines from the five “Softer World” strips that served as inspiration; in the imaginative contexts that the playwrights have supplied, these quips have a too-pat feel. Still, the project testifies to Rorschach’s inventiveness and to theater’s ability to be in conversation with other art forms.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Truth & Beauty Bombs: A Softer World, by Randy Baker, Norman Allen, Heather McDonald, Shawn Northrip and Alexandra Petri. Inspired by the Web series “A Softer World” by Emily Horne and Joey Comeau. Directed and conceived by Jenny McConnell Frederick; costume design, Erik Teague; sound, Gordon Nimmo-Smith; props, Britney Mongold . About 1 hour and 45 minutes. Tickets: $20-$30. Through Oct. 4 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or www.rorschachtheatre.com .