Two acts are too short a time to spend with Deborah Zoe Laufer’s lovable characters in “End Days.” The sweet-spirited script, occasionally undone by surprisingly ungenerous treatment of its sole crazy evangelical, nevertheless brings out the best in all five performers, especially a daring Dane DeHaan. His portrayal of Nelson, a doggedly happy bullied teenager, gives the play its heart and soul. While a snide Stephen Hawking and an uncommunicative Jesus vie for the minds and hearts of the traumatized Stein family, Nelson miraculously represents the reconciliation of faith and reason.
Under the precise hand of Lisa Peterson, the play unfolds with Nelson at the forefront. We see him before we see anyone else, standing on top of a table in his ubiquitous Elvis Presley costume (circa 1975, unfortunately) playing an ode to his angry Goth crush, Rachel Stein (Molly Ephraim). It’s a cute moment, gleefully spoiled by Nelson’s offstage tormentors, who spend most of the play winging half-pint milk cartons at him and calling him names. “You guys!” grins Nelson indulgently. They’re just kidding, or so he wants to believe.
That scene, both funny and horribly sad, gives us an idea of what to expect from Nelson in love: There is no rejection harsh enough to blow him off course. When he surprises Rachel’s parents at her house (“Who is it, hon?” “It’s the king.”), we’re ready for Nelson to try pretty much anything.
But the Steins give Nelson a run for his money in the eccentricity department. Arthur (Peter Friedman) has spent the last couple of years in his pajamas, while Sylvia (Deirdre O’Connell) has a close, personal relationship with Jesus (Paco Tolson). Christ, with the traditional long hair, beard and white robes, follows Sylvia around and comforts her, playing the perfect host and confidant.
Unfortunately, Sylvia has also become convinced the world is about to end and that her unsaved family are going to burn in Hell. Thus motivated, she sets out to evangelize both her Jewish family and the world at large, while “waiting for the apocalypse like it’s a Greyhound bus,” as Rachel puts it.
Rachel has reacted to her parents’ simultaneous meltdown by opting for black hair and Queen of the Dead makeup. Inadvertently, when she succumbs the tiniest bit to Nelson’s overtures and agrees to read his favorite book, she finds another way to get Mom’s goat. The book is “A Brief History of Time,” written by her newfound imaginary companion, Stephen Hawking (Tolson again). In a voice that sounds like a Speak-and-Spell, Tolson explains the mysteries of the universe to his new charge and learns to mellow out with the occasional marijuana interlude.
Laufer has nailed down inter-teenager dynamics with a precision that parents are likely to envy, but the real surprise here is how believably Nelson fits into the polarized household. In the eager-to-please high schooler, Sylvia finds a willing listener, Arthur finds someone who doesn’t expect too much of him, and Rachel finds attention. There are further revelations about why Nelson wants a family so badly (and why he prefers the Elvis outfit), but those are too good to spoil.
With all that goodwill, it’s a little depressing to see Sylvia force-fed so much crow at the climax of “End Days.” When she renounces her adopted Christianity at the end of the play, Laufer condescendingly paints the conversion as a victory for intellect and reason, as though atheism and thinking for yourself were the same thing. Perhaps the author wanted a venue to take a few pokes at wacky evangelicals, but the play’s prevailing virtues of kindness and consideration seem briefly undermined by the sniping.
It’s to Laufer’s credit, then, that the show’s redemptive themes and sparkling dialogue totally negate the mocking in a final analysis. The playwright has an enviable gift for crafting vulnerable moments between her characters (the scenes in which Arthur teaches Nelson his Torah portion are particularly moving), and she goes a long way to keep her happy ending from seeming forced or corny. Occasionally insular or not, “End Days” is a wonderful demonstration of writerly skill and compassion.