I couldn't help worrying when I heard that End Days, the new play being mounted by Curious Theatre Company, featured Stephen Hawking, Jesus Christ, a goth girl and a teenage boy who dresses as Elvis — not to mention 9/11. Such a semi-hip assemblage seemed to signify a young playwright who hadn't figured out what she wanted to say yet but hoped to sound deep; I expected either a pretentious muddle or a collection of bad jokes. But that's not what I got. Deb Laufer's End Days is a very funny play with a deep seriousness at its core, a play that asks how, in a world where horror can erupt from a clear blue sky and hundreds of human lives be snuffed out between breakfast and lunch, anyone can find meaning and the strength to keep going.
The family depicted in End Days left New York after the attack, which paterfamilias Arthur, who used to work at the World Trade Center, barely escaped. Now in a deep depression, he sits slumped at the table, refusing to eat or shower. Even though the couple is Jewish, Arthur's wife, Sylvia, has found consolation in evangelical Christianity. She spends her time trying to convert as many neighbors as possible in preparation for the coming Rapture, and she's most concerned about the fate of her two recalcitrant family members — zoned-out Arthur and rebellious goth daughter Rachel. The cast is rounded out by Elvis devotee Nelson, a wistful neighbor boy who loves Rachel. He is, as you'd expect, constantly taunted and attacked by schoolmates for his costume, and beyond that, he has his own trauma to deal with: He discovered the corpse after his father hanged himself. The boy is absurd, but he's also gentle, persistent and devoted to science, and he becomes a kind of savior for the family. He encourages Sylvia's beliefs without necessarily sharing them; he turns Rachel on to science by loaning her Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and he gets Arthur involved in the preparations for his bar mitzvah (Nelson isn't Jewish, but his stepfather is).
So here we have all the consolations to which people usually turn in a crisis: religion, science and pop-culture fantasies — in this case, about a rock star who returned from the dead. None of these are abstractions. Not only does Nelson embody Elvis, but a very corporeal Jesus follows Sylvia wherever she goes, and a puckish, wheelchair-ridden Hawking periodically visits Rachel.
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Presented by Curious Theatre Company through July 26, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org.
Even though most of the dialogue is wonderfully and unexpectedly funny, Laufer doesn't score any cheap points. Sylvia may be rigid and half nuts, but her devotion to her religion is heartfelt. (An odd side note: The Jesus we see on stage is obviously intended as a figment of Sylvia's imagination, but on some plane of reality, he's an independent being. He'll summon an insipidly benevolent smile when Sylvia needs him to, but at other times he'll pick his nose, look bored or make satirical gestures.) Arthur's dysfunction is comically presented, and his recovery is signaled by his determination to feed everyone waffles and Reuben sandwiches. But Sylvia and Arthur are also moving portraits, made doubly so by the profoundly truthful and expressive performances of Rhonda Brown and Marcus Waterman. Absurd as their predicament is, you really care about them. Laura Jo Trexler gives the goth Rachel a shiny vitality. Although Sean Mellott has some lovely moments as Nelson, his performance is often jittery and superficial — particularly when he demonstrates to Rachel that his leg is so injured he can barely put weight on it, then appears to forget all about the injury within seconds. David Russell portrays both Jesus and Hawking with just the right combination of sarcasm and impish glee, Chris Leo's direction is empathetic and astute, and hearing all those Elvis songs (courtesy of sound designer Paul Turley) reminded me again just how terrific a singer the King was.
As for Laufer's script: A few scenes go on too long and the characters are sometimes a bit too sweet, but it's only the ending — which incorporates a couple of false endings — that's genuinely problematic. As Sylvia waits in an agony of uncertainty for the Rapture to come, Arthur confesses his love for her and affirms his return to the world. This makes for an emotionally satisfying, if sentimental, conclusion. But Laufer doesn't stop there. Perhaps she thinks it's too pat. She tacks on a series of scenes showing Sylvia worrying about whether other people have been Raptured while she and her family haven't, everyone happily interacting (nothing like a threatened cataclysm to focus our thoughts on those we love), and Nelson's momentary and mysterious disappearance. As a result, this smart, insightful play seems to peter out rather than end. But since End Days is really about the impossibility of finding solid answers, that might be fitting.