Reviewed by George Basler
The Stein family in End Days takes dysfunction to a whole new level.
Dad is nearly catatonic after surviving the 9/11 attacks; Mom is a strident “born again” Christian; their daughter has embraced the “Goth girl” lifestyle complete with black eye makeup and cynicism. Their next-door neighbor is a nerdy teenager who continually dresses in an Elvis costume.
Jesus and physicist Stephen Hawking stop by to pay visits.
If this all sounds pretty bizarre, it is. But in the hands of a strong cast at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott, it’s also a sweetly humorous, engaging and, at times, poignant comedy/drama about a dysfunctional family slowly knitting itself back together.
The Cider Mill is presenting the regional premiere of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play, which has been performed across the country and Off-Broadway in 2009.
While the play has serious undertones, at its heart, it’s a whimsical comedy and, on that level, it succeeds admirably. End Days is consistently funny throughout its two acts, sometimes hilariously so. In other words, the play, which runs through May 19, is a real crowd-pleaser.
What’s refreshing about End Days is its tone. Laufer doesn’t condescend to her characters by making them figures of ridicule or unappealing grotesqueries. Instead, she seems to have genuine affection for the weird little troop of wounded souls. There’s not an ounce of cynicism in the play.
The five-member Cider Mill cast seems to share this affection. In their capable hands, the characters become recognizable and sympathetic human beings coping with personal wounds, albeit in an off kilter sort of way.
A standout is Matthew Gaska who plays the teen with an Elvis fetish and a crush on his “Goth girl” neighbor. The character could easily be a buffoon or annoying fool, but Gaska plays him with a wide-eyed innocence and exuberance that makes his goofiness totally appealing. You can’t help but root for the character who, in the end, becomes the Stein family’s unlikely savior.
The rest of cast is equally fine. Amoreena Wade starts out a bit too loud and strident as the daughter, but her portrayal becomes more nuanced as she conveys the sadness underlying the character’s hard exterior and her transition from anger to acceptance and love.
Michael Arcesi gives a heartfelt performance as the burned-out father who slowly recovers his equilibrium to embrace life and his family again. The scene in which he asks his wife’s forgiveness for emotionally abandoning the family is beautifully done. Mark Roth does a strong comic turn in the dual role of Jesus and Hawking.
A special mention should be made of Dori May Ganisin as the mother, Sylvia, who has become a religious zealot in the wake of 9/11. Ganisin’s character is the most difficult and problematic role in the play and could easily become a caricature or shrill harpy. But Ganisin makes the character sympathetic. Not only is her performance extremely funny, but it catches the underlying heartache of a woman who has seen her certainties destroyed and been pushed to the edge.
End Days is far from a perfect play. The ending goes on too long and, while emotionally moving at the start, becomes a bit mushy. The family’s transition from hopelessness to rebirth may strike some as too abrupt and simplistic.
Besides this, Laufer’s mocking tone toward religion may be off-putting to some. (Can’t religion be a source of strength as well as a neurotic crutch?) And be forewarned: Wade’s character has a potty mouth and drops the “f bomb,” but the language is nothing teenagers haven’t heard already.
Despite its flaws, it’s hard to stay angry at a play as sweet-natured and funny as End Games. Director Paul Klementowicz keeps the play moving well and maintains a tone that, while far-fetched, is at least plausible.
Laufer’s message seems to be that people need to rely on each other in times of stress rather than following ideologies, be they religious or something else. Some may question this message, but the play is genuinely funny and enjoyable throughout. The family’s rebirth resembles a “feel good” Hollywood movie. And there’s nothing wrong with a “feel good” Hollywood movie. As the character Sylvia Stein would say, “Thank you, Jesus!”
IF YOU GO: End Days is being performed through May 19 at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Performances are 8:15 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. There also is a 4 p.m. performance on May 18. Ticket prices are $28 Fridays, $29 Saturdays and $26 at other times ($10 for Sundays and matinees for ages 18 and younger when accompanied by an adult; $25 Thursday, Sundays and matinees for students and those 65 and older). Tickets are available by calling the box office at 748-7363 from noon to 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visiting www.cidermillplayhouse.org. On performance days, tickets also are available at the box office until curtain time.