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End Days

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Peter Friedman, Deirde O'Connell, and Molly Ephraim
Photo by Zack Brown.

Quick theology quiz: Does God more resemble Elvis Presley, Stephen Hawking, or a guy wearing a long white robe and a brown beard? Could He even be all three? These competing visions of divinity are at the squishy center of Deborah Zoe Laufer's friendly but confused play End Days, which just opened at the Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Just don't waste too much time pondering whether a prophet, a wheelchair-bound physicist, or a hip-swiveling pop singer is more holy. If, as Laufer argues, they're all merely impediments to leading a humanely human existence, you have better things to do with your time. It's only when the connection to the tangible people and things around us, rather than amorphous ideas based on either faith or science, falls apart that we ourselves do. Life and love are too vital to allow that to happen.

Oh, you've heard all this before? Well, yeah. Laufer is not exactly charting unexplored territory here in 2009, although in the play's September 2003 time frame, her characters have only just crossed the threshold of a frightening new world. They were all affected in some way by the terrorist attacks on the U.S. two years earlier: Sylvia (Deirdre O'Connell), a Jew turned an atheist, became a fundamentalist Christian; her husband, Arthur (Peter Friedman), who miraculously escaped from the World Trade Center on September 11, became barely able to lift his head off the kitchen table; their daughter, Rachel (Molly Ephraim), went Goth so her parents - and everyone else - would leave her alone.

None of them really wants that, of course. Sylvia is so desperate for interaction she imagines Jesus (Paco Tolson) as following her around and helping her distribute her literature and prayers. Rachel is initially annoyed by Nelson Steinberg (Dane DeHaan), a nerdy junior at her high school who always wears an Elvis costume that reminds him of his mother, but is turned by his inherent kindness and his interest in the writing and philosophy of Hawking (whom Tolson also plays). Nelson bonds with Arthur, too, over Nelson's upcoming and much-delayed bar mitzvah, which is enough for Arthur to rekindle his own reason for living and merely getting up in the morning.

Like most stories about transformation, this one eventually relies on a collision between beliefs to sharpen the focus on What Matters Most. This consumes nearly the entire second act, with Sylvia spending an uninterrupted 24 hours with her Arthur, Rachel, and Nelson, convinced that the Rapture is coming. That's plenty of time for everyone to learn a little something, and of course face the end of the world (and maybe its aftermath) with all the courage they should have been showing each other all along.

If not groundbreaking, it's all very nice. But the injections of The King of Music and The King of Theoretical Physics introduce serious problems that the rest of End Days isn't compelling enough to overcome. This is not Tolson's fault. He's marvelously serene and soft-spoken as Jesus, and his mimicking of Hawking's computer-generated speech is pitch-perfect. It's just that these ancillary figures detract Laufer from detailing in sufficient depth her own Grand Unification Theory of Family, and instead reinforce exactly what she's warning against: Divide your heart and head too many ways and you'll miss what's most important.

So despite all the content and all the cleverness, there's a prevailing emptiness here that director Lisa Peterson's staging on Lee Savage's appropriately cramped cardboard-box-chic living room set can't smooth over. The acting largely succeeds in spite of this. DeHaan is the exception, trying far too hard to be awkward, and ending up more grating than ingratiating. Friedman is too molasses-thick of voice and manner early on, but lets more define Arthur once he literally and figuratively opens his eyes. O'Connell's typical scatteredness works well for Sylvia, and falls away nicely when it's time for her to come to terms with reality; Ephraim is equally as good as both the ghoulish rebel and the sensitive daughter once Rachel's white makeup starts to crack.

Sylvia's and Rachel's parallel evolutions to different kinds of sanity could form the basis for a meaningful story about living through tragedies on personal and global scales alike. But it's too hard for us to see how they relate to each other, and how far they have to go to truly understand themselves and each other, when so much of their onstage time is consumed by Tolson's expertly executed sight gags. Sylvia and Rachel must be people first and straight men second if End Days is to ever authoritatively distribute the revelations it claims we most need.

End Days
Through April 19
Ensemble Studio Theatre (E.S.T.), 549 West 52nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ensemble Studio Theatre

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