If theatre, both the comic and the tragic, is supposed to be cathartic as I think it should be, then the Paper Lantern Theatre Company’s production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days falls hopelessly flat. To be fair, it’s more a fault of the playwright than the cast and crew. While quite funny at some points, End Days ultimately fails in its attempts to put a hopeful spin on modern man’s devil-may-care tragic metaphysic by presenting us with a family’s almost farcical process of healing after the events of September 11th. But characters stripped down to the single dimension of their reaction to the tragedy and Laufer’s hapless slapping of band-aids on bullet holes can’t fool the audience into believing that nihilism is okay.
Arthur Stein, who worked in the World Trade Center, is paralyzed with survivor’s guilt and hasn’t left the house in a year. His wife, Sylvia, having succumbed to the fear of losing her loved ones, “found” Jesus and the hope of the Rapture as her cure all. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Rachel has turned into an angry, hateful goth chick, searching for meaning while rejecting everyone else’s answers. Enter Nelson Steinburg, a borderline-autistic, borderline-stalker with an omnipresent Elvis outfit and an unstoppably sunny disposition, despite his tragic past. Nelson’s optimism pulls Arthur out of his seclusion, Rachel out of her selfish hatred, and Sylvia out of her fear of the future almost all in the space of one, 24-hour vigil for an apocalypse that never happens.
As I said, the fault does not belong to the actors. Lee Spencer as Arthur comes as close three-dimensions as a good actor can and the emotional honesty of his cereal box-breakdown in the grocery store is easily the most moving portion of the show. And the brilliant physical comedy of the young actor who plays Nelson kept the audience from getting too lost in the dysfunctions of the family as a whole. In addition, the cardboard box set brought a focus to the characters as a family in transition from sorrow to joy.
Despite all this, there is a problem. And the problem is not that happy endings are can’t be cathartic. The problem is that the ending isn’t truly happy. There’s a sort of repentance and reconciliation, but it’s at the expense of the truth. All the playwright can give us is, “In the end we all die, but that’s how it is, so it has to be good enough.” A nihilism that prides itself on its gracious acceptance of the supposed facts is still nihilism. And a gracious nihilism is still a false reality.
END DAYS by Debora Zoe Laufer; produced by the Paper Lantern Theater Company; January 19-22 & 27-29 at 8pm, 23rd & 30th at 2pm; adults $18, students and seniors $15; at Triad Stage’s UpStage Cabaret, 232 South Elm Street, Greensboro, NC 27401; 336.272.0160