NJT’s ‘End Days’ works as dark humor

From left, Clayton Fox, Nancy Bell and Chelsea Serocke perform in NJT’s production of ‘End Days.’Photo: Dan Donovan.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Tolstoy’s famous quote from “Anna Karenina” that, “All happy families are alike” but “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is an apt observation for the thermo-nuclear family depicted in “End Days.”

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play opens the 15th season of the New Jewish Theatre. Directed by Echo Theatre’s artistic director Eric Little (his NJT directorial debut), the story is well-timed to coincide with commemorations of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

ADVERTISEMENT
St. Louis Speakers Series ad


Set in 2003, “End Days” features a Jewish family with a variety of eccentricities. Dad has been clinically depressed since losing all 65 members of his staff in the attacks on the Twin Towers while Mom spurns her Orthodox Jewish upbringing to become a full-blown “Jesus freak.” She insists that the “Rapture,” the so-called “End Days” predicted in the Book of Revelations in the New Testament, are due to occur in the immediate future.

Their daughter, who considers all religion to be “B.S.,” wears all-black Goth get-ups and spouts profanities to get under the skin of her quirky and disturbed parents. Meanwhile, the nerdy neighbor boy prepares for his bar mitzvah insisting on wearing an Elvis costume.

If that were not enough, on-stage appearances feature Jesus of Nazareth and the wheel-chaired-bound atheist and scientific genius Stephen Hawking.

The play also conveys the prediction by Evangelical leader Harold Camping that the Apocalypse, the final battle between Good and Evil at Armageddon, will correspond with the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

If all of this sounds a little meshuggah, well, yes, it is. But by the middle of the first act, once the interactions among the characters and their on-stage personae have jelled, the dark humor kicks in and the play begins to work as over-the-top comedy. By the second act, the confusion of the first has been cleared up and the audience can relax and enjoy. Oh, and laugh.

As for the latter, Laufer’s script manages to squeeze humor out of Mom’s frequent Jesus sightings, Dad’s clinical depression, the daughter’s drug use and panic attacks experienced by the neighbor boy when he tries not to wear his beloved Elvis garb.

The high-energy cast makes the odd behavior believable (after a while) and turns the characters into more than cartoonish buffoons.

Nancy Bell is perfect as Sylvia Stein, a mom who has taken leave of her rational side to embrace the End Days beliefs of the most fundamentalist Evangelical Christians.

Terry Meddows manages to make his portrayal of the sometimes almost catatonic depressed father, Arthur Stein, not only interesting but also funny.

Chelsea Serocke is strong and charismatic as rebellious Goth daughter Rachel Stein – the object of obsession for her nerdy neighbor bar mitzvah boy Nelson Steinberg (superbly played by Clayton Fox).

Capping off the cast is Roger Erb, who appears in various scenes first as Jesus of Nazareth and later as Stephen Hawking. His light-footed version of Jesus is more “Godspell” than “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It is a bit confusing at times if the audience is supposed to believe that Sylvia Stein is only imagining the presence of her beloved Jesus, or if he is supposed to be taken as “real.”

As Stephen Hawking, Erb is fantastic as the genius ALS sufferer. He avoids being mawkish as he gives an eerily accurate portrayal of the author of “A Brief History of Time,” a book that fascinates Rachel as much as the “Good Book” of the New Testament obsesses her Mom Sylvia.

If you’re a good sport about suspending disbelief and are willing to go with a zany script about a truly dysfunctional but very funny family, the “End Days” makes for a nice evening of entertainment.