Sylvia Stein (Nancy Bell) is a born-again (3 months and 17 days ago) evangelical Christian who is Jewish by birth and a former atheist by choice and circumstance. She is so involved with Jesus that he is personified by Roger Erb, walking beside her, talking to her (when no one else is around) and lending her support at all times. Erb’s Jesus is imbued with a fine comic sensibility. I don’t know whether Laufer or director Eric Little consciously based Jesus’ body language on Kevin Smith’s “Buddy Christ” from the movie Dogma, but that’s the way the character is played.
Jesus helps Sylvia cope with her sense of helplessness and loss of control stemming from 9/11 when she thought her husband was dead. Arthur Stein (Terry Meddows) is alive but barely and in a deep depression due to a wicked case of survivor’s guilt. Alone among the 65 other employees in his office, he escaped the holocaust. He slouches around the house in his pajamas all night and sleeps all day. He hasn’t left the house in a long time, even to get groceries.
Rachel Stein (Chelsea Serocke) is navigating adolescence, or trying to, with these parents. She copes by assuming a hard-edged goth persona to keep people at a distance. However, her loner status is challenged by the new boy across the condo complex from the Steins, Nelson Steinberg (Clayton Fox) who dresses in an Elvis jumpsuit, carries a guitar and list of “ice breakers” so he can talk with people, and is accustomed to being beaten up for his eccentricities. This behavior, a set of specific anxieties about his outfit, and his laser focus on a couple of things would suggest Asperger’s Syndrome, but that may not be the case. His circumstances are unusual in that both of his parents are dead and he lives with his stepmother and her new husband.
Nelson inexplicably falls for Rachel quickly and hard. No matter what she does, he won’t keep away from her, and to try to get rid of him, she agrees to read his copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It blows her away, as does the character of Hawking himself (Erb) who is the funniest thing in the play. He helps her open her locker, he is oddly materialistic (he wants her to buy his books and lectures) and is even hilariously possessive of her.
Sylvia is eagerly waiting for the Rapture but fears her daughter and husband will be left behind when she is taken up. She gets Jesus to indirectly “tell” her when the event will occur (Wednesday) then he leaves her, saying he’ll see her again on the last day. She becomes even more manic than she has been, and she insists that Rachel, Arthur, and Nelson (who is now fully insinuated into the family) be together from midnight to midnight to await the cataclysm. And a good time is had by all. Really.
The set by Justin Barisonek centers on the kitchen of the Stein home where much of the action takes place. The table is where Arthur sits all night and sleeps all day, but also where he helps Nelson prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. (Nelson is a junior in high school, but his new stepfather is Jewish, so he’s now expected to be Jewish also, and a.s.a.p.) The family gathers at the table to play games, eat, argue and, in general, be a family, however odd. But hovering above the house are huge blocks of “stone” held precariously by a net. It is a potent symbol of both the twin towers and the danger that Sylvia and Arthur perceive as always over them. In fact, they moved away from the city after the bombings, and apparently in a rush. They feel so adrift that most of their belongings have never been unpacked.
Quick scenes in other locations take place with a prop or two in front of the kitchen, then that space is filled with a living room set for Act II. So, the home is now complete. This all mostly works, but a few of the frequent blackouts for scene changes are distractingly long. John Armstrong’s lighting design is especially effective, particularly his willingness to discomfit the audience by liberal use of the dark. Joshua Limpert’s sound is evocative and fills in a lot of blanks about locations like church and school.
Little is a fine director, and two of his actors (Meddows and Serocke) were in the last show he put on at the late, much missed Echo Theatre of which he was the Artistic Director. End Days is an Echo kind of show too—quirky, yet occasionally profound. This is not a flawless script. Frequent “punch lines” give it a sit-com feel here and there. The time is two years after 9/11, but that’s not always clear, especially when Arthur refers to the events as being “many” years ago. Most troubling to me is how easily Arthur snaps out of his long, near-suicidal funk to become the Jewish mother of the family. He has lost so much weight since the tragedy that his clothes literally hang on him, but he perks right up and constantly urges everyone to eat. The ending seems rather simplistic also.
But I’m nit-picking here, at least to some extent. The bottom line is that you’ll enjoy watching this play, and its occasional bromides such as “the knowledge of death of what makes every moment precious” aren’t too hard to swallow. The acting is uniformly excellent, especially Meddows, as always, a standout and Erb a real treat in the guises of his alter-egos. Waiting for the Rapture with this bunch is actually fun. Like Nelson says, “This seems like a once-in-a-lifetime event!” as he excitedly accepts his invitation to the apocalypse, and by extension, his inclusion in a family who are renewed by the restoration of real love and hope at the end of the day.
End Days runs at the New Jewish Theatre through Sept. 25. For more information, you may visit www.newjewishtheatre.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT