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Subversive Theatre changes direction with the charming comedy ‘End Days’

Laughter and the Subversive Theatre Collective are usually not partners.

Subversive’s artistic director, Kurt Schneiderman, said as much the other evening on the opening of the first show of his company’s 12th season.

Serious themes are almost always the norm at Subversive, tales of justice defined or denied, plays for the proletariat by the likes of Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Buffalo’s Emanuel “Manny” Fried and others. Gritty, grimy stories with few smiles.

In the foyer outside of the Manny Fried Playhouse, there is a long table full of books and pamphlets, a lending library of sorts, with titles like “Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds and Riff-Raff” and “Gun Thugs, Rednecks and Radicals.” There are pages of raucous patriotic ditties from Ireland’s “Songs of Freedom: The James Connolly Songbook.”

But, surprise! A change of pace for the normally gloomy company: Deborah Zoe Laufer’s charming little eschatological comedy, “End Days,” a daffy story for our time filled with not only giggles and guffaws but hilarity … normally a scarce commodity on the third floor of the Great Arrow. Laufer, a rising young American playwright, has written a warm play full of heart and healing and it has been wonderfully brought to life by director Michael Lodick and a lovable, foolish and avid cast: Wendy Hall, Philip Farugia, Eliza Vann, Michael Wachowiak, John Kennedy and Joshua Robinson.

The wild premise is this: Sylvia Stein, eschewing her Jewish roots, has become a fundamentalist Christian, born-again and out doing good works with Jesus at her side (he follows her everywhere, unseen by others). Somehow she is led to believe that the world as we know it will end next Wednesday. The Rapture. Soon. Yikes.

Sylvia’s family is deeply dysfunctional. Husband Arthur survived 9/11 but has been traumatized ever since, never out of his pajamas, usually asleep. Teenage daughter Rachel, a bright but surly Goth, is a handful. Sylvia needs to get this pair ready for Wednesday.

Then there’s nerdy, weird Nelson, the bullied boy from next door who is sweet on Rachel. He has dressed like Elvis since he was 5, but devours anything written by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, particularly his “The Brief History of Time.”

Sylvia is convinced that the end is near. Rachel is incredulous. “You didn’t tell anyone about this, did you?” asks Rachel. “No,” Sylvia says, “but I did put an ad in the Pennysaver.” Art begins to stir, actually goes outdoors, grocery shops. He’s concerned about the Rapture and the date on the milk he just bought. Sylvia begins to panic.

When Jesus starts to leave one day, she screams, “Don’t go!”

“I have to so I can come back,” says the Beatific One.

Rachel has become infatuated with the ALS-stricken Hawking, who appears to her and counsels. Dark, skeptical Rachel, awakening Art, conflicted Nelson. “… those who are alive and remain,” notes the Bible. Sylvia gets them all to pray.

So goes “End Days,” a funny clash of faith, love and science, saved here by a fervent cast who triumph over a bargain-basement set and many scenes played in unwieldy niches. They care, nurture and encourage. There’s a nice, if syrupy, finish, absurd but acceptable. Whether they come or go, the Steins, plus Nelson, are forever together.

Hall, never false, always real, is full of honest zeal as true believer Sylvia; Farugia is admirable as Art; Vann, pretty and mercurial as Rachel; Kennedy – a hovering, helpful Jesus; and Robinson, a wise and witty Hawking, are a fine ensemble, along with the manic Wachowiak as Nelson, hopping, skipping and tumbling about in a sort of odd sideways canter as he faces the dilemma of studying for his bar mitzvah while buying chips and dip for the Rapture.

Who knew the Book of Thessalonians could be so funny?

theater review

3.5 stars

What: “End Days”

Who: Subversive Theatre Collective

Where: Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow

When: Through Nov. 15

Tickets: $20 to $25

Info: 408-0499, www.subversivetheatre.org

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