BWW Review: BOOM at Wellesley Repertory Theatre
Recently, a December 2018 article from Howlround Theatre Commons came across my consciousness (or it came across some screen I was scrolling through- same thing). Against the New Play: or, What is Theatre For? In it, theatre artist and film fanatic Rob Onorato outlines American theatre's current fixation with standard, new plays. He writes;
"New Plays take many forms and have been around for years, but they seem especially prized lately. They're plays with budget-friendly cast sizes, simpler stories with watery stakes, forward-slashes to indicate overlapping, a pretty strict adherence to the fourth wall, 'ordinary' unaffected language, and an authorial injunction to either 'play it fast' or 'respect the beats'-or both. Further, all of the matter onstage is matter of the theatre (i.e. no video, film, poetry, live musical interlude, non-diagetic dance, opera, or lip-sync)."
Unfortunately, as 2020 has kicked off, the above description still applies to 90% of the work I've been sent out to view all over the commonwealth. Maybe that is okay. I happen to concur with Onorato's point, however, and find it pretty boring. As a relatively new critic, this is the first time in my life when I am seeing theatre with any sort of regularity- I don't know how anyone in Boston can afford to make theatre more than a special event at the admissions prices most theatres are charging. For me, these plays that feel as though they originate with a cleverly written prompt for a playwrighting course and then meander through arguments and bumper sticker catchphrases to lead an audience to some sort of moral seem exhausting and interchangeable. I find myself needing to write the reviews quickly, before I forget which piece had the two characters on the couch fighting about a potential pregnancy and which had the two characters on the bed fighting about a potential engagement. For those audience members who are not critics, I question how one of these plays over another is meant to draw them out of their homes. If I had to select my singular theatre outing for a long span of time, would I rather see people argue on beds and couches, or should I invest in something more reliable? (The answer is, I would invest in a reliable evening that I know I would enjoy. When is Wicked coming back?)
As a theatre artist, I often sit and wonder, when I attend these plays, 'why did an artistic director select this over another interchangeable piece?' I try to glean what a director has imbued unto a text. How has their eye crafted images that will stick with me as an audience member? How have they realized a world that is specific to this production, which will only exist for this fleeting moment? I have a very hard time with both of these questions, especially when a work is produced by a Boston theatre in the lukewarm haziness of its limelight stint in New York City, Chicago, or Washington DC. (Side note: I once asked in a job interview how the theatre felt they were honoring their printed mission statement of presenting cutting-edge works if they were consistently producing all plays that had just closed in New York City. I thought this showed I had spent time thinking about how I could interact with their goals and help them grow. Turns out, general managers aren't looking for that kind of analysis from box office representatives.)
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's boom was the most produced American play of 2010. 10 years later, Wellesley Repertory Theatre has brought it back, directed by artistic director, Marta Rainer, armed with the proverbial program note toting its enduring relevance. In a way, it seems to wittily comment on the 'New Play' format that still plagues us. It gives us the Annie Baker-esque satisfaction of seeing things really happen on stage. Right at top of show, one character bangs on a timpani. We see the drum reverberate and hear the sound ringing off of the walls. Another character immediately tells her scene partner to take his shirt off. We watch him do so, and then we see him fumble to awkwardly remove his jeans, turning them inside-out in the process. Is that a real fire extinguisher? The fish tank is really bubbling. Is that a real first-aid kit? Cool.
The main action of the piece is framed in a bomb shelter- David Towlun has designed a clean, white, pentagonal cross-section of the structure that stands out against the black walls behind it. Jules, a gay marine biologist from Kansas, has calculated the exact, impending occurrence of a cataclysmic event that will wipe out 95% of life on Earth. Jo, a journalism major from Massachusetts, has responded to his ad for a casual encounter, hoping to find a story about hope she can write for class. Instead, she finds herself trapped in a doomsday bunker with a gay man who is certain that the world is ending and that he will need her, in a nightmarish riff on the Noah's Ark narrative, to help him repopulate the planet. Nicholas Yenson as Jules relies on all of the histrionics of Jim Carrey (in The Truman Show, not quite Ace Ventura), and has all of the learned charm of the titular homosexual on Will & Grace. Draining, but certainly not insufferable. Chloe Nosan, a senior at Wellesley College, plays Jo with a decidedly discrepant non-grandeur, nasally and apathetic. She is revitalizing as a real presence within an otherwise zany world of brightly colored costumes, an iconic staple of designer Chelsea Kerl's, and larger-than-life characters.
The piece, which would otherwise exactly fit Onorato's criteria for a 'New Play', is intercut with narration by Barbara, a museum guide who controls the two characters with a switch and frames the entire script as a recreation for audiences in the distant future. Ultimately, her presence seems like a hokey gag, and, while 85 minutes may not seem like a particularly lengthy evening of theatre, it is an incredibly long evening to sit and await an anti-climactic punchline. Actor Stephanie Clayman seems superfluous within the role, and serves as an unfortunately confusing interruption to the narrative; alternating between complaints about the management of the museum and jokes of a caliber that have already been performed decades ago by the Coneheads on SNL.
Realism ages poorly. Certainly, new adaptations of Chekhov seem to malleably bounce through the ages, but this work feels dated in its politics, its language, and its cultural touchstones already. It does not quite feel like a period piece, but does not have the lasting power of Angels in America or Fefu and Her Friends, which both feel endlessly more contemporary in their recently acclaimed revivals than boom, despite preceding its premiere by decades.
Overall, I question the purported relevance of the piece, I question why it has been selected for WRT's season, and I question what (if anything) my takeaway from the evening was meant to be. I propose, that if theatres wish to keep producing this kind of piece, they could save plenty of money by forgoing a director's salary. All three actors listed extensive credits in their program bios. The designers toted equally impressive bodies of work. I have no doubt they would have arrived at a similar outcome if left to their own devices. I cannot perceive the ways in which this production required direction. I caught another piece by Nachtrieb, The Totalitarians, a few years ago at Gloucester Stage. The same issue stood, and I believe it is no fault of the director of either piece that their hands were imperceptible in ways that left me questioning their pertinence. Both pieces seem to take roundabout turns to deliver a standard, candidly-packaged message that may seem obvious to most of the audience before their attendance at the show. Do we need to keep producing these works which cater to the lowest common denominator by preaching messages that could otherwise be learned by a pass down any aisle in a Hallmark store? Are we not ready for something more engaging? And if theatres are not ready to present more inherently engaging works, forcing audiences to wrangle with preconceived notions, will this art form survive the twenty-first century? In order for Nachtrieb's play to remain 'relevant', we certainly must hope theatre as a form is ready to take the leap.
The show runs through February 9 on Wellesley's campus. More info here.