Boom from Black Lab Theatre: A Blissful Evening of Humor and Big Ideas

The set-up:

In Boom, a man and a woman are locked, not in an embrace, but in a bomb shelter, seeking to escape a meteor heading for earth. They are strangers to each other, newly met courtesy of a dating service. But this is no romantic pas de deux. Instead it's an inventive comedy that tackles large issues with verbal style and rapier wit. Also, there is a third character watching their every move.

The execution: The set is almost a fourth character, as it plays a crucial and hilarious part. I won't spoil it for you, except to say that on opening it has a classic, clean look: it's sparsely furnished, with white cabinets, a pallet bed on the floor, and a fish tank. But if you can't stand antiseptic, don't worry, help is on the way. And then there is that metal submarine door with the wheel that locks it airtight. And, oh, yes, at one end of the stage is a raised platform with a variety of levers and an attractive woman in a white, semi-medical outfit who is pounding a large drum. You will wonder what is going on, and that of course is playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's ingenious intention.

This is the home of Jules, a young marine biologist who is on a quest, not for sex despite his ad, but to save his species with his underground ark. He has no girlfriend - there's a reason for that - hence his ad. Jules is played by Jordan Jaffe in an engrossing characterization that allows him humanity and drive to break through his deep nerdiness. And, as Jaffe struggles out of his trousers (it takes a while), we see an actor with a gift for physical comedy. Fortunately, his vivid portrayal is matched by Lindsay Ehrhardt as Jo, a journalist who writes everything down in schoolbook notebooks. She is dressed admirably in understated hip (costumes by Macy Perrone), and is as forthright and in-your-face as Jules is reticent. Ehrhardt radiates an exciting energy that is captivating - though Jo does seem to believe that physical violence will solve most problems.

The woman in white garb is Barbara, played by Celeste Roberts, and she is a lot more than a percussionist. We learn that Jules and Jo are in a play within a play, and their desperate striving for survival may be a re-enactment of a major historical event, viewed from the far future. Barbara exists in that future, and loves the living diorama she controls - but downsizing looms. Roberts is excellent in a complex role that has several layers; she's caring, innovative, rebellious and, yes, opportunistic.

Playwright Nachtrieb has a gift for language that is realistic yet seemingly freshly minted. Jaffe and Ehrhardt are appropriately dead-serious in grappling with their predicament, but the play is nonetheless hilarious, and a throwaway line, "the duct tape is holding," is priceless. Nachtrieb toys with illusion inventively and with great good humor, while creating real suspense throughout. And don't forget that brilliant fourth character, the set, designed by Ryan McGettigan, which undergoes very, very substantial changes. There are other minor characters in cameo roles as futuristic stagehands whose entrance heralds hilarity; these too are excellent.

The events are directed by Justin Doran with a sure hand, and the result is close to perfection. Despite its amusing ingenuity, this is a difficult play, and Doran permits the serious ideas to emerge through the comedic surface. There is no mugging, no winking at the audience, no sentimentality, no pandering to the lowest denominator of the audience. Doran has found the rich humor, the gravitas of the issues, which center around evolution, as well as the hidden, running joke that human nature, alas, will never change. Doran is perfectly paired with the genius of Nachtrieb, who here turns reality on its head, as the more the playwright deliberately exposes us to the illusion of theater, the more we become convinced that what we are seeing and hearing is the real McCoy. Boom is a high-wire tightrope act, breathtaking in its courage and daring, and I'm recovered enough from laughter to report how delighted I am that Doran and the talented cast made it across to a successful conclusion.

The verdict: A brilliant cast, wonderful character-driven humor, elaborate stage props and a driving comedic energy under a sure directorial hand create an evening of pure bliss. This is riveting theater, with some big ideas emerging through its hilarious humor. Don't miss it!

Boom continues through September 29, from Black Lab Theatre, at Wildfish Theatre, 1703-D-1, Post Oak Blvd. For ticketing or information, call 713-417-3552 or contact the company website.

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Jim Tommaney