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A CurtainUp Review
End Day

Knowing death is inevitable gives every moment of life meaning — Nelson, quoting Rabbi Bonbach
End Days
Peter Friedman, Deirde O'Connell, and Molly Ephraim
(Photo by Zack Brown)
Ensemble Studio Theater and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project celebrate eleven years of collaboration with the wild and wonderful End Days, by Deborah Zoe Laufer. The play is set two years after 9/11. The Stein family is rapidly disintegrating. They are barely surviving. They've been unable to unpack since their move from New York City. Their refrigerator is empty because everyone is too busy with personal demons to think of buying food.

Arthur Stein (Peter Friedman), who was the only one to escape from his office in the World Trade Center, is still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. Unable to get dressed or even eat, he either sleeps all day or walks around the house like a zombie. His wife, Sylvia (Deirdre O'Connell) has become a born again Christian. When she isn't distributing literature or conversing with Jesus (Paco Tolson), she is desperately trying to convert the other people in her family so they will not be left behind when the rapture comes. Arthur and Sylvia's 16-year-old daughter, Rachel (Molly Ephraim) is an angry Goth, clad in black with a face painted deathly white.

Everything changes when the Stein's neighbor, Nelson Steinberg (Dane DeHaan), a 16-year-old Elvis impersonator who suffers from a condition that seems to mix autism, obsessive compulsive behavior, anxiety and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, barges into their lives. The guitar-toting Nelson is in love with Rachel. He is impervious to her rejections and abuse. He welcomes the smallest crumbs as signs of affection.

If all this sounds somewhat depressing, End Days is, in fact, enormously funny, warm and uplifting. With the help of her fantastic cast, director Lisa Peterson keeps the play moving at breakneck speed but still gives the audience time to empathize while laughing.

Nelson ends up befriending the entire family. He gets Arthur to put on street clothing and go shopping. He interests Rachel in science, specifically, Stephen Hawking (Tolson), who soon comes breezing on and off stage, dispensing ironic advice from his motorized wheelchair, and visible only to Rachel. Nelson goes to church meetings with Sylvia and encourages the other Steins to come along too. He doesn't find his churchgoing inconsistent with the fact that he is studying for his (belated) bar mitzvah.

Despite his many gaffs and his obsessive chatter, Nelson's unflinching optimism, enthusiasm and love of his fellow-man provides the healing balm the Steins so desperately need. And DeHaan is magnificently believable in a role that a lesser actor could have turned into a caricature or a joke.

The actors all have an ability that is not frequently put to use in these cynical times. They are able to portray troubled characters who sometimes hurt each but are basically kind, decent human beings. Even O'Connell, who plays a woman who is domineering, judgmental and self-righteous, succeeds in making her character sympathetic.

The humor and the pain in End Days, come from the same source —— the characters' inability to break out of their own world and communicate. Nelson has a slip of paper with prompts for conversation. Arthur, once he overcomes depression, shows his love by preparing a nosh for every occasion.

Who is going to save us, End Days asks. The answer is that we can only save ourselves.

End Days
By Deborah Zoe Laufer
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Cast: Molly Ephraim (Rachel Stein), Deirdre O'Connell (Sylvia Stein), Peter Friedman (Arthur Stein), Dane DeHaan (Nelson Steinberg), Paco Tolson (Jesus/Stephen Hawking) Scenic Designer: Lee Savage
Costume Designer: Suzanne Chesney
Lighting Designer: Raquel Davis Properties Designer: Meredith Ries
Sound Designer & Composer: Ryan Rumery
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, with one intermission
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street (Between 10th & 11th Avenues) 212-352-3101
From 3/25/09; closing 4/19/09
Wednesday through Friday at 7pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7pm, and Sundays @ 3pm
Tickets will be $30 ($20 during Previews) with Students & Seniors $15 for all performances
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 1, 2009
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