Peter Sinn Nachtrieb has never been to Philadelphia before (unless you count passing through once on a train) but, considering two theater companies are performing two of his plays at the same time in the same building, he suddenly has no excuse to stay away.
“I’m excited to see them both,” he said about his upcoming trip to the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. “It’s crazy that they’re both in the same place at the same time.”
The San Francisco-based gay playwright is talking about his plays “Hunter Gatherers” at The Adrienne and “Boom” at Adrienne’s Second Stage.
“Hunter Gatherers” is a dark comedy in which a group of urban professionals and longtime friends in their 30s — Richard, Pam, Wendy and Tom — gather for a dinner party, only to surrender to their more baser instincts with bloody consequences.
That means there’s sex and violence that somehow, some way, doesn’t end well for some of them.
“They start off as kind of yuppie characters in an urban loft,” said the 35-year-old Nachtrieb. “The hosting husband is Richard, who is an omnisexual person instead of just simply heterosexual. They host their friends for an annual dinner commemorating their friendship. He decides to up the ante by slaughtering his own food. So he gets a lamb and the opening scene is him trying to figure out how to do that, having never done it before. They start out in a very civil place and something about cooking the meat seems to break down a lot of their civility as the evening goes on and their instincts take over.”
(And here we thought we were the bomb serving up gourmet chips and homemade salsa to our guests.)
He added that while the characters consider themselves civilized and identify as straight, the play does explore themes like polymorphic sexuality and sexual drive as it relates to aggression and affection.
“One of the triggers for that play was, let’s look at this institution that we’re so adamant about fighting for and getting,” Nachtrieb said. “I think the main overarching theme of ‘Hunter Gatherers’ is about humans as animals, instincts and how much we’re connected to who we are as beasts. In the play, there are some homosexual moments as well as heterosexual moments. It’s definitely people trying to fight with their instincts and remain civil. Basically they lose themselves to their more animal selves as the play goes on.”
(He really didn’t have to sell us on it. We RSVPed at the promise of animal sacrifice and dead yuppies.)
It sounds like a must-attend party, but unfortunately the characters aren’t based on real-life people.
“No, no, no,” Nachtrieb said, chuckling and assuring us he knows of no actual Richard, Pam, Wendy or Tom. “They all have different strategies for survival, from being dominant and the ways that people try to get what they want from being kind of passive. So all the characters are a compilation of many things I’ve noticed in other people, or even in myself.”
“I really hope there’s no one like them out there. There are aspects to all of them that people can identify with. When the first production was done here, part of the marketing campaign was asking people who you are in the play. Are you a Richard? Are you a Pam? Are you a Wendy? Are you a Tom?”
Nachtrieb’s other play, “Boom,” is a less-visceral but still dark and thought-provoking comedy set in an underground laboratory, where a journalism student and a marine biologist meet up via Craigslist for an evening of “intensely significant coupling.” Ahem ... S-E-X.
Simple enough, right? Who wouldn’t just show up at an underground facility to have sex with a stranger?
Did we mention the student is a straight woman, the biologist is a gay man and a comet is about to slam into Earth?
“Both plays are inspired by my love and interest for biology,” Nachtrieb said. “‘Boom’ is a play about evolution and it’s a play about how you deal with sudden changes and how much control we have over our lives. We try to plan things out but sometimes things happen that are simply beyond our control. The play explores that in a sense as a story about a blind date right before a comet hits the planet Earth. It’s between a gay man and straight woman and they end up being the last two people on Earth. It’s about fate versus randomness and how that affects us on a personal level, and also on an evolutionary scale with how life has evolved on the planet.”
You don’t have to say it. We noticed too: In Nachtrieb’s plays, much like in real life, horrible things happen when people plan to have heterosexual sex.
As clever as that observation was, Nachtrieb said the “hetero sex equals death and destruction” implied by the plays’ plots is purely coincidental.
“There are bad things that happen when the sex happens and when the sex doesn’t happen, I guess,” he said.
Nachtrieb acknowledged all his plays have a darkly humorous element to them, which he attributes to his upbringing.
“I definitely am drawn to writing comedy,” he said. “I listened to a lot of comedy records as a kid. My whole family was — or tried to be — funny. It was instilled in me very early. It’s definitely my attitude toward life: to have a sense of humor about things. Some of my earliest writing was in sketch comedy. I was also a theater person for a long time. The tones of the two plays are both very funny. ‘Hunter Gatherers’ is maybe a little more of a darker farce. Hopefully, I’m expanding my voice with each play that I write.”
Nachtrieb also has been known to act here and there, but said writing has always been his priority.
“The little bits of acting I do: I perform interactive murder mysteries for corporate parties and sometimes corporate sexual harassment training,” he said.
(We pause at this point to ponder how hilariously strange it would be to make a living acting in corporate sexual-harassment training.)
“At this point [acting gigs are] aimed at supporting my writing career,” he said. “I think at some point, I made a decision about what was compelling me the most. The writing, I find it really challenging, mysterious and satisfying. I’ve kind of made that what I really would want to be doing as my career.”
When it comes to acting in his own plays, Nachtrieb said it’s been in a while — but he doesn’t rule it out.
“Never say never. When I first started writing, some of those early pieces were solo performances. I want to write good plays for actors. I want to write parts that people would want to play and wouldn’t mind investing three months in being these people. Being an actor has definitely influenced how I write, which is a very helpful thing. But I haven’t been in anything I’ve written for a long time. So who knows?”
Theater Exile presents “Hunter Gatherers” through Nov. 22 at The Adrienne, and Flashpoint Theatre Company presents “Boom” through Nov. 21 at Adrienne’s Second Stage, both at 2030 Sansom St. Nachtrieb will host a post-show talkback on Nov. 7, and a pre-show meet-the-artist brunch on Nov. 8 for “Hunter Gatherers.” For more information, visit www.theatreexile.org, www.flashpointtheatre.org or www.peternachtrieb.com, or call (215) 218-4022.