The accelerating speed of historical events makes it hard to write a topical play. Couple this with the difficulty of getting a play produced, and the window of opportunity for a new work to run in more than one market is small indeed. Scribe Deborah Zoe Laufer (“The Last Schwartz,” slated to open Off Broadway this fall) overcomes these challenges in “End Days” by zeroing in on some contemporary staples — religion, science, 9/11, and celebrity worship — and weaving them into a satirical dark comedy with a moral edge.
As a result, “End Days,” which opened at Florida Stage in 2007, has received royal treatment from the National New Play Network, with a production last February in Indianapolis and current productions in Denver and Martha’s Vineyard. Expect “End Days” to follow its predecessor to New York: As we face species-defining choices over the next few years, it’s a natural.
Wife and mother Sylvia (Rhonda Lee Brown), is a newly born again Christian who talks to Jesus regularly; nothing unique, except whenever she mentions Jesus’ name he appears — perhaps in the flesh, perhaps in her mind — offering compassion and loving kindness. Eventually, Sylvia asks the big question, “When’s the Rapture?”
In addition to examining Christianity by conjuring its central figure, Laufer winds an intriguing Judaic thread, interlacing Sylvia’s husband, Arthur (Marcus Waterman), a lapsed practitioner of Judaism, and Nelson (Sean Mellott), a local teenager who converted to Judaism for his new Jewish stepfather and now is studying for his Bar Mitzvah.
Nelson is head over heals for Sylvia and Arthur’s daughter, Rachel (Laura Jo Trexler), an agnostic, black-cloaked Goth.
Director Christopher Leo’s naturalistic approach to Laufer’s magical realism avoids the hard sell while giving her script deceptively sharp teeth. Brown’s Sylvia disarms us with her heartfelt candor, drawing her family’s and the audience’s hard-earned sympathies despite her vexing fundamentalist hyperboles — all the while setting us up for a surprising catharsis.
Waterman’s arc, as Arthur, carries us from depression (his co-workers lost their lives in the Twin Towers) to a heartwarming rebirth. Replete with studs, spikes, chains, piercings and leather from head to toe, Trexler’s Rachel is a dynamic and grounded counterpoint to her mother’s heavenly aspirations.
Mellott’s Nelson, whose only costume is a Las Vegas-era Elvis jumpsuit, supplies the majority of voltage for the show’s pacing.
In a clever and fun double-casting, David Russell gets double-duty as the winsomely hip, nonchalant Jesus and the congenially focused, wheel-chair bound genius Stephen Hawking.
Nick Kargel’s set effectively provides for both earth-bound and psycho-spiritual action; Annette Westerby’s costumes are right on the money — fun, detailed, and original; and Shannon McKinney’s lighting ranges from subtle to special effects, punched up by Paul Turley’s atmospheric sound design and an all-Elvis soundtrack for the segues.
No heavy preaching here. The universality of the denouement brings this comedy full circle, leaving us to admire the relevancy of Laufer’s humor and wisdom of her message.