After surviving the fall of the World Trade Center through dumb luck, Arthur Stein (Terry Meddows) flees to the apparent safety of the suburbs with wife Sylvia and teenage daughter Rachel. Two years later he's so debilitated by depression that he can't even bring himself to change out of his pajamas. Sylvia (Nancy Bell) has renounced Judaism and been born again as an evangelical Christian dynamo trying to save everyone in sight before the Rapture arrives — Jesus (Roger Erb) is her wingman, trailing behind her with serene majesty and an encouraging smile. Rachel (Chelsea Serocke) has grown into an angry, bitter goth girl, ignoring her father and openly loathing her mother.
And then along comes Nelson Steinberg (Clayton Fox), the new neighbor who's as smitten with Rachel as he is with math and science and is currently in the process of converting to Judaism. Oh, and he dresses like Elvis Presley circa the Vegas years. Can this eternally optimistic young nut win Rachel's heart and help heal the Stein family rifts?
Welcome to Deborah Zoe Laufer's whimsical comedy, End Days, the New Jewish Theatre's current stage production. That's quite a jumble of character hooks and made-to-order conflicts, all right, and Laufer's script could benefit from some judicious editing (mostly in the second act, when Rachel and Sylvia engage in two long arguments on the same topic, with no resolution or advancement). But there are ample laughs along the way, and director Eric Little ensures that the evening's predominant aftertaste is sweet and life affirming.
Scenic designer Justin Barisonek's perfectly bland condo set sits bright and plain beneath a frozen avalanche of rubble chunks the size of coffee tables, visible even through the kitchen window. This looming wall of destruction is a constant reminder of the devastation the Stein family fled back in New York, but also a symbol of the fear that each of them still lugs around.
Nelson is the sort of indefatigably upbeat character that can only be created, not born. He has much more personal tragedy in his past than any of the Steins, yet his belief in the mathematical and technological advances made by scientists such as his idol, Stephen Hawking, is so strong that he can't help but focus on the glorious future that awaits mankind. Fox gives Nelson the proper balance of enthusiasm and teen awkwardness so that you willingly suspend your disbelief about his cheerful acceptance of lunchtime beatings at the hands of fellow students, and at his all-too-easy integration into Arthur's daily routine. He's just that likable — you want him around as much as Arthur does.
Meddows is very good as the crumpled, almost comatose Arthur. Over the course of the play, he uncoils from the kitchen table to stand once again on his own two feet, a father to his own family and to Nelson as well. Helping Nelson with his bar mitzvah reading from the Torah, Meddows quietly demonstrates the healing power of faith; his long-suppressed Jewishness becomes his well of strength in a portrayal of religious reawakening that is believable and affecting.
Mother and daughter are tougher to rectify. Sylvia's hard-line — one might say "militant" — Christianity is tough to swallow for two hours, even with the leavening presence of Erb's goofy Christ. Bell sells the fear and isolation of her new beliefs so well that you shudder every time she opens her mouth and cringe at her selfishness toward Rachel and Arthur. In the final analysis, though, End Days' take on her Christian convictions seems unsettled.
Serocke's feisty, sharp-edged portrayal of a young woman who has lost the parents she knew and loved and now lives with their zombified versions is exceptional; her anger is not blind, it's fueled by despondency. That Nelson offers a convenient way to rekindle her heart and mind doesn't make the pair's burgeoning relationship any less sweet, merely predictable.
And that's OK. The message at the heart of all the whimsy and proselytizing is that optimism and the proper maintenance of our emotional bonds can sustain us. Our relationships lift us from loneliness, depression and fear — but only if we choose to engage in them.
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