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End Days

Deborah Zoe Laufer's irreverent yet deeply felt comedy humorously navigates the uncertain terrain of faith, love, and science.

Peter Friedman, Deirdre O'Connell, and
Molly Ephraim in End Days
(© Zack Brown)
Who knew The Rapture could be so funny? In Deborah Zoe Laufer's irreverent yet deeply felt comedy End Days, now at Ensemble Studio Theatre as part of its Sloan Project, dedicated to new theater works that explore the worlds of science and technology, the playwright humorously navigates the uncertain terrain of faith, love, and science.

Set in 2003, the play revolves around the Stein family. Arthur (Peter Friedman) used to work in the World Trade Center and hasn't been the same since September 11, 2001. While he and his family relocated shortly afterwards, they still haven't unpacked most of their boxes, which are stacked high on Lee Savage's set. His 16-year-old daughter Rachel (Molly Ephraim) is sullen and resentful -- and also doggedly pursued by her Elvis-impersonating neighbor, Nelson (Dane DeHaan). Meanwhile, Arthur's wife Sylvia (Deirdre O'Connell) has found a close, personal relationship to Jesus -- who is literally embodied onstage by Paco Tolson, complete with beard and flowing white robe.

Sylvia is convinced that the apocalypse is nigh, and when she presses Jesus for specifics, she interprets something that he does to mean that it will be arriving on Wednesday. She gets her family (plus Nelson) to agree to hold vigil with her, although they seem to see it more like a kind of party where they can have snacks and play games rather than the opportunity for repentance that Sylvia intends.

While this set-up may seem wacky, the play taps into contemporary anxieties and examines with some seriousness the ways we cope with loss and the unknown. Lisa Peterson's tightly directed production is perfectly calibrated to mine the play's humor without losing sight of the complex family dynamics in Laufer's script.

She's aided by an excellent ensemble cast. O'Connell delivers a grounded performance that doesn't mock Sylvia's faith, but rather demonstrates a depth of feeling that makes it easy to believe that she is doing all in her power to save her family from being "Left Behind." Friedman is immensely touching as Arthur gradually awakens from his stupor as the play progresses; it's like watching a dying ember slowly build back up to a soft glow. Ephraim indicates a little too much in the first half of the play, but as Rachel warms up to Nelson (played with an adorable sweetness by DeHaan), she's able to show more colors. Tolson -- who also doubles as Rachel's drug-induced hallucination of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking -- strikes comic gold in both of his parts.

Nelson and Rachel's shared interest in scientific theory is one of the things that bring them together. Nelson passionately talks about how it will soon be possible to know the answers to long-held questions about the origins of the universe. And yet, he doesn't discount faith in God. He responds just as passionately to the Evangelical church service Sylvia brings him to, while also continuing to quote the Rabbi whom he's studying under as he converts to Judaism. His behavior may appear contradictory, but it can also be viewed as a desire for knowledge while still being content with the fact that absolute truth will always be elusive.