This month, the Salt Lake Acting Company is featuring End Days, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s quasi-apocalyptic comedy about a fragmented nuclear family. Struggling to find meaning in a world that seems absurd and poised on either rapture or self-destruction, the Steins endeavor to work through the traumas that have split their elementary kinship structure like the atom. The performance is directed by Kirstie Rosenfield and runs through April 26.
The father, Arthur (played by Paul Kiernan), is a traumatized survivor of the 9/11 terrorist attacks who no longer has the will to leave his house. His wife, Sylvia (Colleen Baum), alarmed at her husband’s condition, flees in panic to religious mania. Forsaken by both parents, their daughter Rachel (Marin Kohler) seeks narcissistic solace in teenage existential angst. Isolated sub-atomic particulars, each family member searches for a way to reintegrate with the others and form a larger whole. Impeding their efforts, however, are all the usual motivational suspects: jealousy, fear, guilt, shame, rage––the familiar dramatis personae of morality plays, though now expressed in the language of method acting and ego psychology. The external factor which helps catalyze change for the Steins is Nelson (Daniel Lara), an Elvis-impersonating physics geek who attends Rachel’s high school. Like a lost puppy sweetly oblivious to the meaning of goth attire, the pining Nelson––ineluctably attracted to Rachel––follows
What rescues End Days from being yet another formulaic comedy of manners is not the human emotions, timeless ideas or timely issues addressed. If anything, the play’s attempts to indulge in such pseudo-profundities cause it to risk appearing not absurdist so much as itself absurd, in all the worst ways. Nor does the play benefit from the clever adoption of the atomic model as a device to structure its plot. Rather, End Days burns most brightly when it is at its most ridiculous. For in addition to the inadvertent ministry they receive from the Elvis disciple Nelson, Sylvia and Rachel Stein also find solace and meaning in the teachings of their own respective personal saviors, Jesus and Stephen Hawking. These characters (both played by Nick O’Donnell) allow the dialogue to depart from predictable domestic melodrama and take surprising and at times genuinely humorous turns. Especially effective and enjoyable is the portrayal of celebrity physicist, which more than being accurate to real life, comes across as a wonderfully parodic tribute. O’Donnell truly appears, in a flash of unforeseeable and daring insight, to have created an entirely new formation in the landscape of camp/popular science – the Hawking Impersonator. No one who has heard “Fitter Happier” from Radiohead’s OK Computer, for instance, will fail to be delighted by Kohler and O’Donnell’s superb portrayal of an angst-written teen seeking wisdom from a cosmology guru, and receiving it in the form of a robotic voice which sounds just a little too familiar.
As a whole, End Days does not succeed in breaking entirely free from the predictably bittersweet caricatures, scenarios and actions we associate with awwww-inspring situation comedies like The Golden Girls. In viewing it, one can’t help but feel a little “quasi,” as if watching children’s theater for adults. Still, this is, at the end of the day, a play which itself calls into question the validity and desirability of seeing the world in terms of meaningful wholes, of believing we can explain life and the universe in terms of grand unified theories. To the extent that End Days suggests we can solve these dilemmas in any but the most mediated and provisional ways, it falls quite flat. But in the moments when the play allows these questions to remain radically open and unanswered, it provides its audience with compelling theater indeed. But is it valid to attend a play for the sake of the part rather than the whole, for the enjoyment of the individual scene or moment rather than the entire plot? At its best, End Days, in keeping with the experiments of the dramatist Bertold Brecht, asks its audience these fundamental and necessary questions.
End Days runs through April 26. See it at the Salt Lake Acting Company, or the perennially popular Saturday’s Voyeur, which runs from June through August. The Salt Lake Acting Company opens its 2009/2010 season in September with The Cartaker, a play by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter. This promises to be a performance not to miss.