nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 2, 2009
Everyone's looking for some certainties to hold on to in Deborah Zoe Laufer's End Days. Sylvia Stein has recently found Jesus (three months ago) and is preparing for the imminent apocalypse—really imminent, as in next Wednesday. Arthur, her husband, lost his job and most of his coworkers on 9/11, and has only sunk further into depression, despair, and agoraphobia ever since. Their daughter, Rachel, a brilliant mathematician, has become an alienated Goth in the suburban subdevelopment where they now live. And their new neighbor, Nelson, a lonely outsider who's obsessed with both Rachel and experimental physics, is ready to simultaneously prepare for a bar-mitzvah and be healed by Jesus if that's what it takes to make a connection.
The characters and their yearnings are sympathetic, but the writing is problematic: simultaneously way too vague and illogical in its storytelling and way too tidy in its emotional journeys, which winds up making it feel unconvincing on several levels. The present situation of the Stein family was clearly triggered by 9/11—Arthur lost his job, Sylvia became increasingly gripped by paralyzing anxiety, they moved out of New York and into suburbia—but the play is set in September 2003, at which point they haven't unpacked their moving boxes; neither Arthur nor Sylvia appears to have a job; Arthur's been too depressed to leave the house lately and therefore there's nothing to eat. It's obvious that this situation can't have been going on for the past two years but there's no sense that either they've been on a continuous downward spiral culminating here, or that some other event triggered Arthur's current bout of despair and Sylvia's conversion. Sylvia's conversion seems to have had no impact on the rest of the family in a spiritual sense—in fact, quite the opposite—but has led to her immediate repudiation of science to the point where she's pulled her very smart daughter out of science classes, and the rest of the Steins seem to be acquiescing to this. And the exact nature of Sylvia's religion—what its precepts and teachings are other than "repent and accept Jesus" remains unclear. Rachel is quite explicitly using her Goth persona to create a barrier between herself and people around her, classmates and family alike, but Nelson is immediately drawn to her and she seems to have an immediate compassion for him.
So at the beginning of the play, it seems like the Stein family is highly atomized and estranged from each other; Sylvia has a much warmer relationship with Jesus (who is quite a literal incarnation for her, both spiritual guide and sidekick, present on stage) than with her husband or her daughter; Rachel seems to have nothing but contempt for either of her parents; and Arthur is almost catatonic. The arrival of the very strange Nelson, an extremely socially awkward teenager who wears an Elvis costume everywhere (a long-drawn-out psychological coping mechanism for his mother's death when Nelson was a small boy), seems unwelcome. At the same time, though, by simply taking an interest in each member of the family, he serves as a catalyst that quickly starts to shake things up and rearrange them back into an emotionally connected family unit. In asking Arthur to help him learn his bar mitzvah Torah portion, Nelson becomes sort of a spiritual guide, leading Arthur out of the fog of despair with a rapidity and completeness that strain credibility. Arthur goes from being a practically catatonic wreck who hasn't showered in weeks and can't remember the last time he ate to the emotionally available core of the family, trying to nourish everyone both with food and with love and support. Similarly, Nelson is able to draw Rachel out of her shell quite quickly with a combination of earnestness and A Brief History of Time (and as her mother has Jesus, Rachel begins having visitations from the spirit of Stephen Hawking). And for Sylvia, Nelson presents a willingness to open himself up to Jesus, though he also continues to study his Torah portion.
The transformations all around are both suspiciously quick and suspiciously tidy; everyone comes back to life and back together just in time to wait together for the Rapture on Sylvia's deadline. Rachel's imagined connection with Stephen Hawking, who's a somewhat prickly and argumentative mentor, becomes the most complex relationship in the play.
Thankfully, strong performances by the entire cast keep the play enjoyable to watch, and give it a level of emotional groundedness that holds the energy and empathy of the audience. Paco Tolson, in the dual role of Jesus and Stephen Hawking, has some of the play's best lines and thoroughly relishes them. Dane DeHaan, as Nelson, takes a character that could be just a compilation of weird tics—an Elvis costume, the need to write down socially appropriate conversational topics, an Asperger's-like focus on tiny details, a passion for physics—and makes him genuinely endearing and likeable. And Peter Friedman, Molly Ephraim, and Deirdre O'Connell, as the members of the Stein family, likewise give believable emotional lives to characters whose motivations and actions sometimes don't make narrative sense. The constellation of performances is stronger than the play.