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Scramble Me Up a Universe

Most of the experiments slated to run at the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator under construction outside Geneva, involve blasting protons at one another and seeing if any weird bits of matter are produced. Hopes are high that the collider will produce a Higgs boson — the mysterious little particle that will explain why and how the universe is full of so many seemingly disparate objects engaged in seemingly disparate activities even though everything's made of the same crap being acted upon by the same forces. That's the gist, anyway. Physicists will have to pardon my gross oversimplification. I am not Stephen Hawking.

Neither is actor Terrell Hardcastle, but he does a fine job portraying Hawking (and Jesus too) in a play that sets out to explore, in human terms, questions very much like those soon to be addressed on the French-Swiss border, where the Large Hadron Collider is expected to get up and running in May. How is it that people, who all seem to want the same things, manifest their desires in such wildly different ways? Why do they butt heads so much? What the hell? A mother in full Jesus freak-freakout, terrified by a world in which earthquakes and tsunamis and madmen with box cutters can rip the ground (or the passenger jet) out from under you for no reason at all; a father too scared to go outside in such a world, cocooning himself in his pajamas and staring at the wall; a nihilistic adolescent forsaking the universe before it has a chance to forsake her; a parentless kid obsessed with science because it's reliable and obsessed with Elvis Presley because you've gotta find something to make life seem OK and the simple act of getting out of bed in the morning worthwhile — appearances aside, these creatures are all made of the exact same stuff. Smash them together, as Deborah Zoe Laufer's new End Days means to do, and hidden unities will emerge.

It's very edifying to witness End Days, trafficking as it does in what can only be called a very zeitgeisty set of fears, beliefs, and foibles. The family at the play's center, the Steins, is very much a product of our time. 9/11, though never explicitly named, is at the heart of its trouble — 9/11, and the whole violent cosmos with which it brought us face to face.

The play's Jesus freak is Sylvia Stein (Elizabeth Dimon), a nervously upbeat little woman, new to the faith, bouncing through life with the unconsciously patronizing goodwill and white-knuckled grip on certitude shared by new converts everywhere. Jesus follows her wherever she goes. He doesn't say much, as Christians around the world have noted with dismay, but he's still good for a pick-me-up. Life just seems better with Jesus, and Sylvia can't figure out why her husband and daughter are so hesitant to sign on.

Her husband, at least, should know the score. Jim Shankman's Arthur Stein was there, in a stairwell in the World Trade Center, when the planes hit. He barely made it out. But what he's seen is no impetus to get faith — what he's seen is, if anything, a refutation of faith. Now he's so afraid of everything that he can't even bring himself to get dressed, can't even go to the grocer's to get cereal for his daughter.

And it's his daughter who's in the most trouble. Caught between the wreck of a man who used to be her father and the born-again loony that is her mom, Michaela Cronan's 16-year-old Rachel Stein is having a hard time coping. She's been taught to be rational, secular, sane; she's been taught to admire her corporate VP dad. With all she was reared to respect gone missing from the household, she is understandably bitter — a black-clad ball of angst too emo for emo and too honest for goth. The salve for her particular wounds arrives in the unlikely form of Nelson Steinberg (Scott Borish): the Elvis-loving, irrepressibly upbeat science-geek/orphan who's moved in next door.

Despite Steinberg's lack of social skills and Rachel's general surliness, Steinberg gets Rachel to read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. What follows — Rachel's mind-blowing discovery that the universe is fundamentally explicable, her long chats with a drug-induced apparition of Hawking, her mother's sudden panic when she discovers that the Rapture's coming on Wednesday (a classified piece of intelligence that Jesus accidentally let slip, apparently losing his grip for a moment on the omnipotence for which he's loved around the world) — coalesces into a manic whirlwind of a family drama as weird and illuminating and truthful as anything likely to be discovered at CERN.

End Days is funnier than a great many plays designed solely to induce laughter — the Reduced Shakespeare Company, for example, has seldom come up with anything so amusing as Nelson Steinberg singing the Torah in a mid-'70s Elvis voice — and more touching than most plays designed solely to touch. The spectacle of Steinberg trying to ingratiate himself with this obviously troubled family, for validation or love or whatever, is so redolent of the ordinary wishes of real, lonely human beings that, despite the play's atmosphere of general absurdity, it communicates a heartbreaking truthfulness. So what if Jesus and Hawking are running (and wheeling) around the stage? This is pure distillation of a very real thing in a play full of real things. With the Steins and Steinberg lying low, waiting for the end of the world, there is nothing false or stagy in the way the slowly healing family tries to cope with its matriarch's lust for apocalypse. She's so busy waiting for the end that she can't notice the people around her reaching for a new beginning — and that the common craving for resolution is the most natural thing in the world.

It's as natural as a scared and lonely girl rejoicing in the blessed rationality of physics or as a man too traumatized to go outdoors who finds solace in a well-meaning kid with a thing for the King. Life is a terrifying prospect, all things considered. As Hardcastle's Hawking advises Rachel Stein, "Go easy on your mom. We are all just looking for answers."

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Brandon K. Thorp

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