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Salt Lake Acting Company's "boom" is one fecund petri dish of a drama.
Born from the pithy pen of San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, the play folds boffo humor not to mention repeated profanity into natural philosophy, evolutionary biology and a subterranean university lab.
The script places human emotions on the same operative track as the archaic actions of the world's first living cells and the origin of life. It mixes the most unyielding of themes into one smooth drink that could pass for a lab experiment, a blind date, or high-stakes drama of survival.
The good news is that, even should you decline the play's open invitation to marinate your thoughts in its rich themes, "boom" is enjoyable as great theater all by itself.
Five minutes into SLAC's opening-night show under the direction of Robin Wilks-Dunn, it's evident cast and crew know how to pull all the gears of Nachtrieb's themes and make them work in harmony.
In the script, "boom" opens properly with a quote from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who marvels that life's evolution out of almost nothing 10 billion years after the universe "is a fact so staggering that I would be made to attempt words to do it justice."
On stage, the drama begins when Jo, a journalism student on some unnamed university campus, meets for the first time Jules, a marine biologist with a pet fish who offers broad hints that the world may end.
Jo wants sex on the spot to quell her nagging anxieties about life's meaning. Jules, unbeknown to her, has set the stage for something far bigger. It, too, involves sex.
But as the play progresses, the procreative powers of sex become wrapped up in the survival of the human species. The near-genius of Nachtrieb's script is how the play's tempo pulses with punch lines and wordplay galore.
As marine biologist Jules, actor David Fetzer brings just the right amount of nerd and twitch to his role, rarely cutting corners with cliched tones or body language that would make the portrayal more caricature than character. As Jo, Emily Burnworth digs into her character, which provides foil and counterpoint to Jules, with perhaps too much gusto. Less force in her expressions of anger and bewilderment would help the actor build the character.
The real surprise was Holly Fowers. As Barbara, she bangs a timpani and pulls the levers, seemingly, on all that goes on between Jules and Jo in what she calls her "museum of epic and intimate events." It's a character as unconventional as Nachtrieb's play, rolling together elements of a Greek chorus, invisible interpreter and scientist into one.
When Barbara stops the proceedings on stage to offer the audience a sly, yet ribald story of what took place between her mother and father at her own conception, the actor's delivery of the monologue sparked applause. "It took a number of years to figure out how that all happened, and it's been a party story ever since," her character says.
It's near the last third of the performance that "boom" begins to wear its thematic heart on its sleeve, prodding us to marvel that life and human consciousness as we know it came into being at all. The play's eccentric dialogue and plot points raise theoretical questions: Why would a gay man place an online ad seeking a woman? What does it mean when a fish darts into her hiding place? And why do people demand that everything be explained in order to believe?
"None of this had to happen. But it did. And it's beautiful," Barbara reminds us. "Let's linger and look at that."
On opening night, the cast didn't seem to trust Nachtrieb's script quite enough. As the story's poignancy starts to gain on its initial humor, the pacing seemed too speedy, which made it difficult for theatergoers to catch up to the heartfelt emotion of the ending.
This is a minor complaint, however, that should work itself out over the run of the play. At the drama's end, theatergoers should be convinced, as Barbara is, that "boom" is "not just a loud noise it's an event." You may even applaud the fish.
Salt Lake Acting Company goes 'boom'
P A confrontational, explicit, big-hearted journey into chance and the origins of life, highlighted by a nuanced lead character.
When • 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, and 2-7 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 5;
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Info • Tickets are $15-$41. Call 801-363-7522 for more information, or visit http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org.
Note • Adult themes and language not for creationists or those sensitive to profanity.