Monday, April 6, 2009

End Days


By Deborah Zoe Laufer, Directed by Lisa Peterson. At Ensemble Studio Theatre. (CLOSED)

With grades ranging from an A+ to a D+, it's a wonder that End Days escaped the dreaded B- grade. Deborah Zoe Laufer's play about a post-9/11 family manages to pack in everything from autism to Elvis, and as such occasions a critical referendum on Whimsy In American Theatre. The naysayers are sick of it and think it covers up a fundamental emptiness at the heart of the play, while boosters find the play thoughtful, moving, and hysterically funny.

Backstage A+
(Gwen Orel) End Days by Debora Zoe Laufer is ferociously good. It sounds like a quirky family sitcom, but every character quirk comes from need and each punch line advances the story as its sad characters seek salvation -- earthly and otherwise. It's a serious comedy, and it's the best new play I've seen in a long time.

CurtainUp A
(Paulanne Simmons) Wild and wonderful... 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.

Theatermania A
(Dan Balcazo) 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... 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.

Variety A-
(Sam Thielman) Two acts are too short a time to spend with Deborah Zoe Laufer's lovable characters in End Days. The sweet-spirited script, occasionally undone by surprisingly ungenerous treatment of its sole crazy evangelical, nevertheless brings out the best in all five performers, especially a daring Dane DeHaan. His portrayal of Nelson, a doggedly happy bullied teenager, gives the play its heart and soul. While a snide Stephen Hawking and an uncommunicative Jesus vie for the minds and hearts of the traumatized Stein family, Nelson miraculously represents the reconciliation of faith and reason.

NYTheatre B-
(Loren Noveck) The characters and their yearnings are sympathetic, but the writing is problematic: simultaneously way too vague and illogical in its storytelling and way too tidy in its emotional journeys, which winds up making it feel unconvincing on several levels... Thankfully, strong performances by the entire cast keep the play enjoyable to watch, and give it a level of emotional groundedness that holds the energy and empathy of the audience. Paco Tolson, in the dual role of Jesus and Stephen Hawking, has some of the play's best lines and thoroughly relishes them. Dane DeHaan, as Nelson, takes a character that could be just a compilation of weird tics—an Elvis costume, the need to write down socially appropriate conversational topics, an Asperger's-like focus on tiny details, a passion for physics—and makes him genuinely endearing and likeable. And Peter Friedman, Molly Ephraim, and Deirdre O'Connell, as the members of the Stein family, likewise give believable emotional lives to characters whose motivations and actions sometimes don't make narrative sense. The constellation of performances is stronger than the play.

The New York Times C
(Charles Isherwood) A family splintered by trauma slowly knits itself back together again in End Days, a sour-sweet comedy by Deborah Zoe Laufer at the Ensemble Studio Theater. The play's blend of whimsy and sentiment has become a fairly common recipe for emerging playwrights, and Ms. Laufer displays an exuberant affinity for offbeat characterizations. But End Days often feels artificial in its depiction of a damaged family forging a path back to wholeness.

Talkin' Broadway C-
(Matthew Murray) Despite all the content and all the cleverness, there's a prevailing emptiness here that director Lisa Peterson's staging on Lee Savage's appropriately cramped cardboard-box-chic living room set can't smooth over. The acting largely succeeds in spite of this. DeHaan is the exception, trying far too hard to be awkward, and ending up more grating than ingratiating. Friedman is too molasses-thick of voice and manner early on, but lets more define Arthur once he literally and figuratively opens his eyes. OíConnellís typical scatteredness works well for Sylvia, and falls away nicely when itís time for her to come to terms with reality; Ephraim is equally as good as both the ghoulish rebel and the sensitive daughter once Rachel's white makeup starts to crack.

Lighting & Sound America D+
(David Barbour) In End Days, the playwright, Deborah Zoe Laufer, presents us with yet another kooky, dysfunctional family in need of healing -- then proceeds to apply the balm herself... Anyone suffering from an allergy to winsome, comic neurotics should give Ensemble Studio Theatre a wide berth for the next few weeks, even if Laufer occasionally manages to make End Days seem funnier and more incisive than it is... the author hasn't really created an organic dramatic situation; instead, she's assembled a bunch of one-dimensional characters with easily cured tics.

BS A+ 14; CU A 13; TM A 13; VA A- 12; NYTH B- 9; NYT C 7; TB C- 6; LSA D+ 5; TOTAL: 79 / 8= 9.88 (B)

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