Peter Sinn Nachtrieb doesn't see a huge chasm between his interests in science and his chosen career as a playwright.
"We're all a part of this natural world," he points out. "We can't separate ourselves from it."
And ultimately, Nachtrieb says, the queries and intellectual goals of science and art dovetail.
"(Both) are an attempt to describe and capture the beauty of the origin story," he says. "Both are a way to understand how life evolves."
Nachtrieb's play "Boom" opens today at Hyde Park Theatre in a production produced by Capital T Theatre.
A dark comedy, "Boom" finds a terribly mismatched young couple holed up in a bunker after a massive comet hits the Earth. The last survivors, ostensibly they're supposed to repopulate and keep the human species alive.
But the best laid plans of doomsdayers often go awry. And just a few very human mistakes derail the original scheme for life after Armageddon.
The story of life, Nachtrieb seems to suggest, is a combination of billions of years of lucky coincidences, catapulted by miraculous inventions but then diverted by the unpredictability of an ever-changing natural world.
"Hey, things happen — but there's always an upside," Nachtrieb deadpans.
The combination of Nachtrieb's serious inquiry and dark, offbeat humor has struck a chord with contemporary audiences.
"His writing has been compared both to ‘South Park' and Edward Albee, which is actually a pretty accurate way of describing his sharply funny and outrageous style," says Mark Pickell, artistic director of Capital T Theatre.
Pickell staged Nachtrieb's "Hunter Gatherers" in 2010. Like "Boom," a dark and gruesome comedy, "Hunter Gatherers" charts the story of an urbane dinner party that devolves into a primal struggle for survival of the fittest.
"Hunter Gatherers" proved such a hit with Austin audiences that Pickell had to extend the run.
"(Nachtrieb) asks a lot of both the actors and audience by taking his plays to comedic extremes," says Pickell. "But I think everyone who sees one of his plays leaves thinking a lot about the work, and I think we also leave a little smarter."
A San Francisco Bay area native, Nachtrieb studied both biology and theater at Brown University. Back in San Francisco after college, he immersed himself in the city's performance scene, writing and acting.
It was "Hunter Gatherers" that gave Nachtrieb a national profile with the play, netting the Tony Steinberg New Play Award in 2007 from the American Theatre Critics' Association.
Next, "Boom" premiered in 2008, and during the 2009-2010 season, the script was the most produced, according to the Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for non-profit theaters, with 16 productions in just the one season.
Nachtrieb is not naive about all the factors that led "Boom" to find such success. With just three characters, one set and played in one intermission-less act, it's efficient for nonprofit theaters to stage.
Nevertheless, Nachtrieb posits that his particular brand of dark humor (he's currently working on a musical about global warming, for example) operates well on a succinct theatrical scale.
It's about how a small cast can play with the bigness of an idea, he says, or the way a large idea can develop within a concise theatrical arch.
Or perhaps it's as Jules, the nerdy biologist in "Boom" expounds: "Many key moments in the evolution of a species are when there are funnels. Bottlenecks. Catastrophes and opportunities where a lucky few squeeze through."
Mix a few sharp ideas with offbeat humor on a small stage and then, boom — it's a play.
Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699