In our current optimistic national mood, what’s going to happen to apocalyptic literature? Do we really want a downer, another Children of Men or Canticle for Leibowitz, when at least 52.4% of the American people, for a change, are actually enjoying thinking about the future?
It’s a question that’s crossed the mind of playwright Peter Nachtrieb. “Damn that Barack Obama!” he says, laughing. Because the topic of his new comedy boom, premiering this week at the Seattle Rep, is the last two human beings in the world—and what their first date might be like. Not exactly a topic that fits the current zeitgeist, you’d think. Nachtrieb, who’s got a simultaneous production of the play opening in Washington, D.C., admits he was a little nervous when he sat in on a preview of the show immediately after the election. “Was it still going to be relevant, something that was still funny?”
Boom is about a scientist, Jules, who determines that the world is coming to an end, and in the interest of continuing the human species, arranges a first date with a woman, Jo, who he’s hoping will be his new Eve. But it turns out, in the nature of all great comic scenarios, that things don’t go as easily as planned. In fact, this two-hander turns out to be a three-hander with the inclusion of the mysterious character Barbara, who seems to know much more than anyone would expect about the couple.
Nachtrieb has a lifelong interest in biology, and he tells me cryptically that the play is “in some sense the story of evolution. I was inspired by Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, a huge, dense book about all of the latest data and information and stories about how evolution changes us over time. I was taken by the passion of this book, and the love behind it. People think of scientists sometimes as dispassionate, but I’m interested in the real people behind the science.”
“This script avoids what a lot of plays about ‘people in the bunker’ fall into,” says boom‘s director Jerry Manning, who’s a fan of end-of-the-world stories—like that great old Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith in which a meek reader who survives a nuclear war finally gets time for all of his favorite books. “Usually, you can’t really sustain suspense with that scenario, and Peter did. There’s not a butt-numbing moment in it.” Manning, the Rep’s interim artistic director and an infrequent play director (his experience tends more toward producing and literary management), praises the structural integrity of the script (which I haven’t yet seen). “It’s a little machine. It’s very finely tuned and it plays to a metronome.”
Of course, Obama’s election has larger repercussions for a place like the Seattle Rep than the way this one play is received. Federal funding for the arts has been surprisingly generous under President Bush; the NEA hit record numbers on their budget as hot-button cultural issues, like Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs, faded and were no longer an easy target in the culture wars. (Though it’s worth asking as a result: Where has all the good political theater gone? Where are the plays about Iraq, torture, FISA, or the myriad sins of the Bush administration? Aside from the Rep’s production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie two years back and ACT’s 2007 mounting of Stuff Happens, David Hare’s incisive documentation of the run-up to the Iraq War, there’s been very little theater that takes a bold political stance.)
The current collapse of the financial and housing markets is potentially devastating to such low-priority funding as the arts. For the short term, anyway, there will probably be less, not more, money available from an Obama administration for art and artists. But Manning, for one, has no regrets. He says the election may “make people more interested in the idea of coming together, of community, which is really what live theater is about.”