The Steins have been traumatized on an epic level. Until September 11, 2001, father Arthur was a senior vice president at a big Manhattan company with offices in the World Trade Center. Then his job "blew up," as he phrases it in Deborah Zoe Laufer's sweet, insufferable End Days. When the towers fell, 65 of his colleagues went with them. Now, two years later, unemployed Arthur occupies an apartment located someplace that's not New York. He sleeps all day, stays up all night, wears PJs around the clock, and refuses to go out even to buy groceries.
While Arthur wastes amiably away, the two women in his life pursue their own mishegas. Sixteen-year-old daughter Rachel is fairly normal, really: she just dresses goth, acts surly, and smokes dope. But wife Sylvia has gotten religion with a vengeance. She not only accepts Jesus as her personal savior, she hallucinates him on a regular basis. The Nazarene hangs with her when she pickets adult video stores ("Please," says her sign, "stop the porn and be reborn"), gives her shoulder rubs when she's inching toward hysteria, and—most miraculously—buys her Starbucks.
Into this matrix of oddball hurt traipses Nelson Steinberg, who goes to the same high school as Rachel, where he sings her love songs from atop a cafeteria table while dressed in a white, rhinestoned jumpsuit a la Vegas-period Elvis. Of course, Nelson has significant wounds and compulsions of his own to deal with. Yet, like one of those therapeutic puppies they hand out at convalescent centers, he ingratiates himself. Let the healing begin.
And that is, indeed, what the healing does all too easily. End Days is yet another of the many pixilation-as-redemption plays that have become a signature of America's academically trained playwrights. I used to think that the style was incapable of producing profundity, but Noah Haidle's Smokefall proved me wrong about that. Laufer's 2007 play muffs its chance to do the same. End Days is lazy on the question of what it might actually take to restore people as far gone as the Steins. In Arthur's case, the cure appears to be as simple as hearing Nelson chant his bar mitzvah Torah portion. Though Sylvia is a harder nut to crack, her reclamation also proceeds with an implausible smoothness. It's ironic: Laufer deals interestingly with the reductive nature of religious zealotry but turns reductive herself in dealing with the human soul.
Still, taking it for what it is, End Days most definitely charmed me. The Windy City Playhouse is opening its doors with this show, and company artistic director Amy Rubenstein was smart to entrust its direction to Henry Godinez. Jewish practice is rendered with simple authenticity, a long set piece—half sleepover, half vigil—is tenderly handled, and the cast are all endearing and funny. Steven Stafford makes an indispensable Jesus. Tina Gluschenko makes a virtue of being difficult to like as Sylvia. What's more, the chairs in the theater swivel, allowing the audience to follow the action in a uniquely literal way.