'boom' :: Chloe Nosan and Nicholas Yenson on Being Frenemies at the End of the World in Doomsday Comedy

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday January 9, 2020

In Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's doomsday comedy "boom," a college woman meets up with a grad student in his underground lab for what she thinks is going to be a hot and wild hookup. Jules, the grad student, has posted the promise of sex that will change the world - a boast that the young woman, Jo, regards with skepticism once she finds out that Jules is gay. But what Jules means is that sex from now on will, if all goes to plan, help restore the world in the aftermath of a devastating comet strike - an impending catastrophe that only he knows about, thanks to his close observation of fish and his highly attuned intuition.

It sounds pretty zany, right? But Jules isn't bonkers after all; even as Jules and Jo argue, the comet strike takes place aboveground. With total devastation having wiped out everyone else on Earth, Jules and Jo just might be the new Adam and Eve... even though she doesn't want kids, and he's not sure he could ever manage actually to have intercourse.

That's not the only problem they face, though. Unknown to both Jules and Jo, a third person is involved in their drama: Barbara, who stands apart and, with the pull of a lever, causes Jo to faint whenever Jo gets too close to opening the door to the lab.

Nachtrieb's play is deeply absurd, intellectually challenging, and ticklesome to the funny bone. It also zeroes in with uncanny precision on hot-button issues that troubled the world in the year of the play's premiere, 2008, and now - in a time that makes 2008 look positively idyllic - continue to rock our social and political landscape.

Actors Chloe Nosan and Nicholas Yenson, the young actors who star as Jo and Jules in Wellesley Repertory Theatre's production of "boom" under the direction of Marta Rainer, chatted with EDGE recently to help sort through the play's many layers and facets.

EDGE: Chloe, you're still a student at Wellesley, is that right?

Chloe Nosan: I am still a student, yes. I'm in my last year — I'm a senior.

EDGE: But you have quite a list of roles already on your resume! What decided you to audition for the part of Jo?

Chloe Nosan: It was an interesting story, actually. I just walked into the theater office to pick up some tickets for "Six — The Musical," and I know Marta, the director — we've done one show together, and I've also taken a class with her; she's also a professor here. It turned out that she asked me if I wanted to audition right on the spot! I didn't even know that she was directing the play! I had bronchitis at the time, which turned into pneumonia — it was a long time [before I could do the audition]. So I waited a week, came in to audition, and I ended up getting the part. I was so excited!

EDGE: Nicholas, you had previously appeared in "The House of Blue Leaves" with WRT. Was that during your student days?

Nicholas Yenson: No, I graduated from college in 2007 and had been working professionally for about seven years [at that point]. I did my degree at the University of Limerick, in Music and Dance, and so I worked a lot as a dancer in Europe and in the U.S., touring around.

EDGE: What brought you back to WRT for this play in particular?

Nicholas Yenson: Wellesley Rep is very good about... I wouldn't say they've got a stock company of actors, but they are very good about keeping in touch with people who have worked there before, and the same people keep coming back again and again, and it feels a bit like a family. The family email, as it were, went out with the audition breakdown and notices for the characters and an excerpt from the script. I had previously read the playwright's "The Totalitarians," and thought that was insanely funny; this came out, and it was also insanely funny, and the character was kind of late-20s-ish, gay, and kind of nerdy, and somewhat optimistic — and that's pretty close to who I am, so I thought I should probably go in for it.


Yeah, I really identified with the character and I wanted to get back to the East Coast and do some more theater — and here I am!

EDGE: Chloe, your character, Jo, is a journalism student who feels a need to document everything. How do you interpret that impulse? Is Jo OCD, or is she looking to make sense of life by putting it into some sort of narrative?

Chloe Nosan: I think more the latter. Jo absolutely is someone whose life is so chaotic. She tends to have very little control over what happens to her, so I think the more that she can take back that agency, and create her life on her own terms, I think that's important to her. That ends up being really important that she does do that.

EDGE: Jo, more than the other character in the room with her, Jules, is subject to the forces of a mysterious third character, Barbara, who stands outside of the place and time where Jo and Jules are trapped. Is this some sort of comment on the historical denial of agency to women?

Chloe Nosan: That's an interesting take that we haven't really explored yet. I think that Jo does not have a lot of agency, and that's something that we're exploring — especially since she is such a strong character herself. It is an interesting balance that the play gives her — that she is able to take control [eventually], but her body... you know, Barbara, this mysterious character, can control that. But Barbara is also, to some extent, able to pause the action [for both characters].

EDGE It's sort of a surreal play; Barbara is some sort of docent or narrator.

Chloe Nosan: Absolutely. We're an exhibit at a museum, essentially.

EDGE: Is Barbara in some way supposed to represent Fate or God?

Chloe Nosan: A little bit. There's one great moment in the play — I don't want to give too much away, but we do bring up that question of Fate and that question of, Do you really believe there is some sort of being out there controlling every little thing? I think that is, for Jo, possibly a thing that she attributes her fainting to — her inability to control her body. There's something out there that is just against her. I do think that it is, generally, an exploration of Fate, and what can happen when randomness takes over the universe. I do think Barbara is a little bit of an incarnation of that.

EDGE: Is Barbara's seeming omniscience and power over the characters meant to prompt thoughts of God?

Nicholas Yenson: It's very interesting that you brought that up; we were doing some pre-production work on the play, sitting around and talking about the themes, and religion came up — whether there is someone at the helm, guiding all of our actions and influencing our choices. I personally don't believe that there is; I think that we're just a product of natural forces. That said, my character, as I play Jules, believes the same thing. It's just that Barbara, as the manipulator of these events doesn't reveal herself to him. So, I could be completely wrong about there not being an omnipotent power out there guiding my actions, because that omnipotent power just hasn't revealed itself to me. It's a funny thing to think about, and I try not to dwell on it too much because I'm supposed to be unaware in this play, I think it would screw up my trajectory if I got lost down that path. But, it's definitely an interpretation that's valid of Barbara, that she is a divine figure or a stand-in for a god.

EDGE: An interesting blend here is the way the play simultaneously tackles the idea of an apocalypse — the catastrophic end of life on Earth — with the theme of scientific inquiry into life's origins. How do you interpret the play's overall take on the human condition and life in general?

Nicholas Yenson: I think that the play's take is that humanity is just one part of the story of life on Earth. We're so wrapped up in ourselves, that we're the most intelligent species that's ever lived on this planet, that we have conquered nature, that we're somehow above it. But I think the play contradicts that pretty strongly. I'm fond of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he says, looking at climate change as a potentially catastrophic period in human history, if we want to fight climate change it's not to save the planet — it's to save the humans. The planet will be fine no matter what humans do. Life is always going to find a way; life will always evolve into a form that will suit its environment until the environment changes. That kind of mirrors what happens in this play. The planet keeps going on and on; whether humanity does or doesn't is another story.

We grew out of a catastrophic event, and we may be ended with a catastrophic event, and if that event ends humanity then something else will grow and take our place. It's a very humbling message.

Chloe Nosan: I think there's so much randomness in the play itself that it leaves it open for interpretation. But I do think that remains the takeaway — randomness and fate, all of these things that we can't control, even if they don't work out, even if it throws together two people who could not be more different, who do not get along together, it can still create something beautiful, eventually. I think it does leave us that hopeful, positive message despite the catastrophe and the awful things that happen. There is an uplifting story involved.

EDGE: Chloe, what's your take on why Jo is reluctant to restart the human race when an extinction-level event actually takes place?

Chloe Nosan: Jo knows what she wants, right? And I think she's being honest when she sways she hates babies. She is not about the sacrifice her personal interest for possibly saving humanity, She's in control of her body to the extent that she can be, and I think she wants to take as much agency as she can when so much has been ripped away from her. There are a few things that she will not sacrifice.

EDGE: The play premiered in 2008, before the #MeToo era; how well does Jules' intention to bring a women to his safe space in order to reestablish the human species play out now? Is this a more charged notion in 2020, or is it something that gave the cast or the director any qualms?

Chloe Nosan: We absolutely had discussions about it. It was one of the first things I asked: How do we want to approach this? Because this is talk about extreme violence, there is talk of sexual abuse, to some extent — I wanted to be on Jo's side there. We don't want to paint Jules as an evil man; he's just trying to save the human race. But from my perspective, I think it's very important to show that it's not okay [to treat Jo as a baby-making machine], and it's great that Jo is able to have agency to some extent, and it's great that she can stand up to this, and that's important. I think it would be a very different and darker play if she was not able to do so. I think it is a very important thing that she has respect and she has dignity, no matter how dark the play does go.

Nicholas Yenson: Yes, definitely. Again, we spent some time on it in the sort of pre-production table work, when you're sitting around the table discussing the play. The saving grace of the play is that Jo does come to Jules' lab for a sexual encounter, so there's at last that; whether or not she's held against her will — in Jules' mind, he's saving her life by keeping her away from the devastation that's happening on the surface. So, from my character's perspective, he's saving her, he's helping he survive this apocalyptic event. It's still something that I'm not super-comfortable with, as an outside observer of the play, because I am locking a person into a room without her knowledge of being locked in. She clearly wants to get out; my character knows that if she leaves the room she'll probably die pretty shortly thereafter. It's a difficult question, and I'm not really sure I have a good answer as to whether or not...

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's ethically ambiguous. The motivations might be pure, but the actions are not always pure in terms of what my character does. But that's life; life is not always clear-cut like it's not always black and white. We can have the best of intentions but then have a disastrous impact. Conversely, we can have bad intentions, and the outcome can be somehow fortuitous. It's a messy play, but that's part of what makes it interesting.

EDGE: Among other things, the play touches the abortion debate, and also how women face pressure to become mothers.

Nicholas Yenson: Oh, yeah, and it's interesting that we're still grappling with all of those [questions]. Even as a gay man, the pressure to carry on the family name or to keep the line going is something that I am very curious about; I'm very interested in family legacies these days, and I wrestle with the question of whether I would want to have children just to carry on my family name. Also, the question of whether it's ethically right to bring children into this world knowing that survival is going to be very, very difficult. I've been thinking about that a lot in the context of climate change, and whether or not it's ethically right to conceive children and bring them into this world. I know that people will keep having sex and keep having children no matter what; as a gay man, that doesn't seem always ethically right to me, because I think that the world is going to become a more difficult place to live as the climate changes and as nature responds to all this carbon in the atmosphere.

EDGE: Being a gay man too, I feel that the play points out that gay men have long been forced into sexual relationships they did not really want to be part of; is "boom" suggesting, even subconsciously, that this treatment of men is also a sort of sexual exploitation or abuse?

Nicholas Yenson: I guess both characters [are being abused], in a certain sense, because Jo is being exploited sexually just for the purposes of procreation She's not supposed to deny a man access to her body to have children; and in the other sense, Jules is being exploited because he's being told to ignore his sexual instincts, to put family and procreation above his own sexual and emotional needs.

Chloe Nosan: Another thing that we see throughout the play is homophobia, and Jo [initially] forcing him to play out the [heteronormative] sexual relationship. She comes at him with words, she comes at him with a lot of homophobia, and I absolutely think that is another side of this. Both [genders] are often forced into roles and actions that they don't want to take, but what do you do when the stakes are so high? What do you do when the fate of humanity hangs in the balance? How do we build a future when everything goes away and neither person is really super-excited about rebuilding, being the sprig [that regrows the tree of human life].

Nicholas Yenson: Yeah... I promise, this is a comedy!


EDGE: It is a comedy, but comedy often has a dramatic core, and it often tells sheds light on serious issues. How directly do you think that the play's themes apply to today and this moment and the things we see happening in the world?

Nicholas Yenson: Well, there's so much, isn't there? There are very obvious parallels with the impending disaster of climate change, and why is no one listening to the scientists? Why isn't anything being done about this? There is a parallel with, as you said, the debate over women's choice — three hundred members of Congress just filed an amicus brief insisting that the Supreme Court re-examine Roe v. Wade. On other levels, there's [a backlash to] our post-marriage equality world. Are we entering a new world in which gay men are being pressured to have families and procreate? It's this weird mirror image of the time when gay men, and other [sexual minorities], too, were supposed to put aside their sexual feelings and marry a person of the opposite gender. In this new world, are we all being pressured toward heteronormativity? There are so many issues that resonate in this play, at this moment in time.

Chloe Nosan: Another thing that we've talked about a lot is, How do you manage when you are stuck with someone that you don't agree with? In today's political climate, with everything that is going on right now, I think that is of deeper importance to explore, and super-relevant. Jules and Jo are not listening to each other, and I think that's, once again, very relevant to today. How do you have a conversation? How to you sit down with someone that maybe you're not forced into a room with, but we're forced to co-sexist with? How do you navigate that?

EDGE Underpinning everything else in the play is the theme of evolution. Do you interpret the play as pointing out the ways in which we might be evolving, or have evolved, as a species and as a society?

Chloe Nosan: I think a little bit, because there is, once again, that hopeful message. But it certainly doesn't paint humanity in the most flattering light, I will say that. I think it points out our flaws; I think it points out we are destroying the planet; we commit of unconscionable cruelty, as Jo says, and I think that the play does not let humanity off the hook. It's asking us, would we be happy if the world ended right now? Would we be happy if a giant comet came and hit the planet right now? Maybe not so much. But once again, I think there is that final uplifting message in that there is hope. It can get better. Our fate is not sealed.

Nicholas Yenson: I don't want to give too much away, but evolution takes care if itself, one way or another. We have no choice. We either evolve and respond to new challenges ion our environment, or we don't survive. Which is sort of Zen, in a way; let things take care of themselves. Things will happen as they need to happen. Some day we won't survive, and that's fine — it's just part of this cycle of life and death. Whether or not humans survive as a species, ultimately we won't. At some point we will go extinct. In a certain way, that's okay; every species that ever lived on this planet at some point goers extinct. Every species runs its course. Maybe our descendants evolve into a new, distinct species; maybe they don't. I think the play reflects that as well, that it's okay to be part of the cycle of life and death. We get scared of it, of course, but it's [also] okay to be scared of it.

EDGE: What's next for you? Chloe, your bio mentions you want to move to New York to pursue your career — do you already some other work lined up?

Chloe Nosan: I'm not entirely sure that I want to stick with just acting, I absolutely want to move to New York, but I'm looking at a lot of different industries to pursue, and that's something I'll be focusing on before I go back to school at the end of the month. I've worked a lot in public broadcast media in the last couple semesters, in journalism. I'm still figuring things out. It's a little bit scary as the time gets closer, but I'm cautiously optimistic that I'll find something that feels right. I lived in New York City this past summer, and it just felt right, so I feel it's the right place for me to start looking.

EDGE: What about you, Nicholas?

Nicholas Yenson: I was working in California on a musical right before this, [and] I'm actually going back to California to do a new — newish, I should say — play at Marin Theatre Company called "Botticelli in the Fire." During the Bonfire of the Vanities, Botticelli destroyed several of his own major works. The play is an exploration of why an artist of that magnitude would do something like that. It's also a meditation if queer culture, on the role of art, on what happens when a democracy starts to fall apart into a theocracy. I'm very, very excited about that one; I'm terrified of it; it's another big, scary play that deals with big, scary themes.

"boom" runs Jan. 16 — Feb. 9. Suggested for audiences 14+. Viewer discretion is advised. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.wellesleyrepertorytheatre.org/shows/boom/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.