Where would you rather be at the end of the world? In an underground bunker with a nervous gay biologist and not quite enough food? Or in a living room with Stephen Hawking and a plate of pastrami?
We get the lighter side of Armageddon in two small, odd, funny new plays currently skittering across Dallas stages. Echo Theatre has Deborah Zoe Laufer's End Days, a wistful comedy about young love that also pits science against the born-again belief in the "rapture." And Kitchen Dog Theater is staging the Texas premiere of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's boom, a percussive one-act that rewinds human evolution to a moment of whimsy involving a fish tank, two virgins and an errant comet hurtling toward the third planet from the sun.
Both productions have a lot to offer theatergoers looking for something upbeat and unusual for an evening's entertainment. They are excellent date plays, with enough going on to inspire some spicy post-show chatter, but nothing so heavy as to be a guaranteed mood-killer. Unless, that is, one of you is overly sensitive to jokes involving Jesus, Elvis and that famous physicist in the motorized wheelchair.
There's nothing much funny about the specter of 9/11 that looms darkly over the characters in End Days (and hangs visually over the Bath House stage, thanks to the inventive scenic design of Jeffrey Schmidt). But that's only a starting point. The Stein family, formerly of New York City, barely mentions the tragedy. Dad Arthur (T.A. Taylor) was his company's sole survivor in the attack on the World Trade Center. He sleeps his days away, slumped over the kitchen table and nearly catatonic with grief. Mom Sylvia (Kateri Cale, hand-wringing every emotion to smithereens) has plunged enthusiastically into Christian "left behind" theology, assisted by Jesus himself (David Meglino), who hangs out in the house, unseen by the rest of the family. Teenage daughter Rachel (Emily Habeck), her cheeks chalked goth-white, has retreated into seething anger and mind-altering substances. She gets high to escape a mother who has gone cuckoo for Christ and a father who can't summon the energy to buy a loaf of bread.Into their lives drops a ray of sunshine named Nelson Steinberg (John Dana Kenning). He's the new kid on the block, wearing a wardrobe from Elvis' white jumpsuit period and strumming crazy-crush love songs to Rachel on his ever-present guitar. Bruised by school bullies and initially rejected by Rachel, Nelson remains a one-man happy factory, staying relentlessly optimistic about everyone and everything. He works his way into the Steins' hearts (and ours), first by enlisting Arthur as a Torah coach for a belated bar mitzvah, which leads to a long overdue trip to the grocery for deli meats. Then Nelson turns Rachel onto A Brief History of Time, which brings an imaginary Hawking (Meglino again, in an imitation both respectful and hilarious) into the household and onto the stage for a primer in the basics of quantum field theory. Nelson even listens patiently to Sylvia's ravings about the biblical tribulation, suggesting to her that they calmly pass the time on what she thinks is the eve of destruction by playing some board games.The clash of faith and science in a family of wildly mixed beliefs is the tough stuff of End Days, which borrows obliquely from Samuel Beckett's Endgame. But the appeal of this smart, multilayered play lies in its disarming and, yes, heartwarming depiction of youthful exuberance and hope. It's not Jesus or some science-spouting genius, but Nelson, the dweeb in the Elvis outfit, who becomes the way, the light and the healing force for a family in crisis.
Directed by Rhonda Blair, End Days vibes on the strong performances of its young newcomers: Habeck and Kenning, both SMU drama students. Habeck, lithe and lovely with a head of dark curls, can seem little girly one minute and wise beyond her years the next. When she finally grabs Nelson for their big smooch, we relax, knowing they'll be all right after all. And Kenning, a tall, angular kid with a Tom Cruise grin, carries the play as the cute puppy everyone wants to take home. His role in End Days should be the start of something big.
The stars of Kitchen Dog's boom, directed by Christie Vela, are also new faces to Dallas theater. Eric Steele, in his Dallas acting debut, plays Jules, a socially inept marine biologist whose research has revealed some disturbing behavior by ocean fish that portends upsetting things for humanity. Jules makes a plan for surviving the coming apocalyptic floods. Through an ad on Craigslist promising "intensely significant coupling," he lures to his waterproof bunker a curious college journalism student named Jo (Jenny Ledel). She thinks she's in for a hot night of passion (we find out later she's a first-timer too). Instead, Jules informs her, she'll be Eve to his Adam when all civilization upstairs is destroyed by the same size comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. OK, Jules is gay, but he just happens to have a turkey baster in the supply cabinet.
Not so fast, says Jo, who hates Jules on sight and has no desire to repopulate with him, even though, as it turns out, he might just be the last man on earth. (Talk about a bad blind date.) Like the young characters in End Days, the couple in boom are opposites that look like they'll never attract. Gentle, awkward, hopeful Jules planned for every contingency except a mate who hates babies and has a death wish. Jo just wants out of the relationship, even if it means suicide.
What happens to Jules, Jo and those prescient fish in the lab aquarium over the play's fast-moving 85 minutes isn't as sitcom-linear or as Twilight Zone-y as you might expect. The story circles in on itself, thanks to a separate meta-narrative provided by a third character, Barbara (a desperately likable Karen Parrish). She's a sort of museum curator who controls the actions of Jules and Jo with a set of levers and electronic kettle drums from her godlike perch across the room (the highly stylized scenery is by Bryan Wofford). Everything we're seeing in boom is conjecture, Barbara tells us. Like those first chapters of Genesis.
Raising questions about evolution and the origins and future of our species, boom, the most produced new play in American theaters this season, feels fresh and clever but is almost too flip about how its characters interact. Nachtrieb, one of those hot young San Francisco playwrights everyone wants to produce (Second Thought Theatre just completed its run of his Hunter Gatherers), is too aware of his own ingenuity as he juggles scientific jargon and the male-female dynamic. And maybe he's not as smart as he thinks he is. He's written Jo as a fatalist, but isn't it women who have stronger survival instincts?
Knock, knock. Who's there? Armageddon. Armageddon who? Armageddon outta here.
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