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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Susan Wands
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

For a rare example of a storyteller more interesting than the tale being told, you need look no further than Ars Nova. But let the record state that the most fascinating feature of the play that just opened there, titled Boom, is not its playwright, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, but someone named Barbara.

Bearing a bobbed shock of copper hair and wearing a slightly revealing, slightly frumpy black suit, Barbara (deliciously played by Susan Wands) looks like a cross between a schoolteacher and a just-past-her-prime 1960s flight attendant. She moves and speaks purposefully but haltingly; her habit of substituting gestures for certain words suggests someone for whom long-held intentions are being allowed escape for the first time.

Yet her obvious discomfort is anything but uncomfortable. Positioned at an antiquated console equipped with an obtuse collection of levers, switches, and percussion instruments (including a tympani), Barbara radiates the self-involved joy of a woman completely in her element. You never doubt her certainty about anything, even when it seems that the people and buildings surrounding her are on considerably shakier ground.

In a play tracking the tremors of change, a guide such as this is crucial to maintaining your own footing. But whenever Barbara starts throwing those levers and banging on her giant drum with the pompous intent of an epic film soundtrack, the work she's doing always seems more worthwhile than the work she's creating.

The object of her affection is an unremarkable end-of-the-world comedy starring two college students, Jules (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and Jo (Megan Ferguson). His online personal ad invited her to his underground lab-apartment for "intensely significant coupling," and she was just emotionally empty enough to agree. But when she gets there, he's too nerdy (not to mention too gay) to follow through with it.

Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Megan Ferguson.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Why did he invite her over for sex if he'd prefer to relate stories of his scientific experiments with fish? He claims it's because those fish, four of which are housed in an aquarium that's the centerpiece of his subterranean dwelling (the amazingly detailed set is by Wilson Chin), are predicting the arrival of a comet that could bring about the end of humanity much the way another once spelled doom for the dinosaurs. Whether he's right or wrong, as well as the specific outcome of the couple's plight, will not be revealed here. (Given the play's title, it probably doesn't need to be.)

Putting aside the improbability that someone of Jules's supposed intelligence would believe one man and one woman could repopulate the Earth, most of these scenes land with a thud. Nachtrieb is aiming for quirky, but he hasn't found the proper balance of comedy and tragedy that would make the show seem enjoyable off-kilter rather than chaotic. The blending of Jules's and Jo's personal traumas, which include (conveniently enough) Jo's innate disaster-detection mechanism, mesh in ways too obvious and uninspired to expand the larger story Nachtrieb is telling.

Similarly, while director Alex Timbers has staged the show superbly, he also hasn't found the proper pacing or tone to even out Nachtrieb's peaks and valleys. This leaves the actors somewhat at sea, with Ferguson nicely tapping into Jo's vacuousness but not her grander spiritual destiny, and Near-Verbrugghe's Jules is so dorkily mannered one can't help but wonder whether he's really human enough to mate. That the two share very little comic chemistry is strangely secondary.

It's only in Barbara, and in the sparkling, outmoded sophistication Wands brings to her, that the at-odds halves of the story meld into one. As the play evolves, and as the depths of Barbara's personal connection to her presentation grows less murky, it becomes less shallow and much more appealing. And once Nachtrieb stops relying on Armageddon clich├ęs just past the 90-minute evening's midpoint, his play even begins to assume a surprising celestial beauty.

The most startling part of this is that Boom legitimately earns it, its gradual ebb and flow becoming by show's end a wave of cleverness that at least leaves you with the impression of a show of some significance. That too many involved haven't figure out how to bring that quality to the rest of the show is unfortunate; that Barbara and Wands almost succeed in picking up the slack is its own small, explosive blessing.

Through April 13
Ars Nova Theater, 511 West 54th Street
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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