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Horizon Theatre's End Days comes Rapture-ready 

A family's post-9/11 anxieties become the stuff of raucous humor

In Horizon Theatre’s comedy End Days, wife and mother Sylvia Stein (Stacy Melich) takes the concept of a “personal relationship with Jesus” to a whole new level.

Sylvia’s not just a devout evangelical Christian, having converted from Judaism a few months earlier. She literally sees Jesus all the time, in her kitchen or at the protest line outside the local XXX bookstore. Adam Fristoe plays the Son of God as invisible and inaudible to the rest of the cast but a beaming, supportive presence to Sylvia. When someone mentions “The Rapture is coming,” Sylvia and Jesus fist bump. When Sylvia says they almost lost a convert to the Unitarians, Jesus does a spit-take with his Starbucks.

End Days’ Jesus favors the Buddy Christ from Kevin Smith’s film Dogma and serves as a droll joke that Horizon’s production executes perfectly. Like the playhouse’s fall musical Altar Boyz, End Days tweaks some of contemporary Christianity's quirks without maligning the belief system. Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer lapses into some familiar theatrical formulae, but End Days’ ability to find raucous humor in millennial anxiety and post-traumatic depression seems almost miraculous.

Sylvia’s husband, Arthur (Robin Bloodworth), worked in the World Trade Center and was one of the lucky ones who escaped before the towers fell. Two years later, he’s still so stricken with survivor’s guilt, he can barely leave the house or change out of his pajamas. Sylvia eventually found Jesus and clung to the possibility of an afterlife as a coping mechanism after learning of life’s fragility on Sept. 11. The back of John Thigpen’s set includes rusted-looking girders that evoke the Ground Zero site.

The forefront of the play, however, concerns a high school romance between the Steins’ angry goth daughter Rachel (Maia Knispel) and her stalkerish but upbeat classmate Nelson (Nick Arapoglou). Even if he were an average teenager, moody Rachel would reject Nelson’s romantic overtures, but her suitor’s the school laughingstock who compulsively wears a white Elvis Presley jumpsuit. In the first scene, he serenades her with new versions of Elvis songs, while his fellow students pelt him with trash.

Rachel just wants to be left alone, but to her chagrin, Nelson ingratiates himself with her parents. He urges Arthur to shop for groceries and take an interest in life, and also attends church services with Sylvia (even though, as a recent convert to Judaism, he’s soon to have a bar mitzvah). Rachel and Nelson finally find something in common when he recommends she read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Rachel embraces Hawking’s ideas not only as a mathematically supported theory of the universe, but as a way of rebelling against Sylvia’s Creationism. And where Jesus visits Sylvia, Hawking (Fristoe in a motorized wheelchair) begins visiting Rachel. Fristoe’s Hawking is more than the patron saint of quantum physics. He’s kind of a shill for his books and doesn’t say “no” to sharing a joint with Rachel. His punch lines sound funnier through the mechanical voice box.

End Days creates a sharp but healthy dichotomy between religion and science, while setting up a less abstract parallel between spiritual and earthly sustenance. Sylvia obsesses over her family’s souls, but proves oblivious to the lack of food in the house. The production mirrors the point when Sylvia carries a stack of Bibles in one scene, and Nelson a stack of breakfast cereal boxes later on. In the second act, the characters gather to await the allegedly impending Rapture, but Sylvia’s apocalyptic preparations are undermined by the other’s enthusiasm for a party. What hors d’oeurves go with the Rapture?

Horizon’s playbill describes the production as part of End Days’ “rolling world premiere” partially funded by the National New Play Network’s Continued Life of New Plays program. Theaters in Denver, Indianapolis, and Palm Beach County, Fla., previously staged the play, which proves almost mechanically efficient as a smart, contemporary, middlebrow comedy. All of the characters have flamboyant tics that require unconventional clothing or other opportunities for humor. All of their personal oddities get smoothed out, if not cured outright, by the second act, which amounts to a family therapy session. End Days proves a little pat, and occasionally touches on stale metaphors, like the concept that light can be both wave and particle.

Nevertheless, End Days proves to be an irresistible, life-affirming production. Director Heidi Cline ensures the play maintains such an energetic pace that its snappy dialogue and quirky roles will appeal to fans of shows like “Arrested Development.” Plus, the character of Nelson, and Arapoglou’s effervescent performance, gives the play an added charge. Nelson accentuates the positive, inspires people and turns the other cheek in the face of his classmates’ ridicule. There’s even a running joke of him displaying another injury every time he appears onstage. Nelson’s Elvis fandom can’t live up to the King, but his ability to bring out the best in others makes him comparable to the "king of kings." If Arapoglou portrayed him merely as a perky know-it-all, the play could collapse, but instead the young actor makes him almost beatific.

End Days also deserves credit for looking to the funny side of some deep social anxieties without resorting to snarky dark humor. Science turns out to offer cold comfort to people seeking an alternative belief that a biblical Armageddon is nigh, as Hawking predicts the Earth will suffer a natural cataclysm within 100 years. Rather than deride any one belief at the expense of others, End Days advocates facing the future with a combination of faith and science, family ties and romantic passion. Few plays can instill such genuine optimism, and potential audiences should check it out, lest they feel left behind.

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