Chicago Theater Review: END DAYS (Windy City Playhouse)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 24, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


It cost over a million dollars to launch the Windy City Playhouse, a beautiful new 149-seat theater on Chicago’s Northwest Side (3014 W. Irving Park Road). Designed by Chicago theater architect John Morris, it opened March 23, the first new Equity house of the century, graced with an art-rich lobby and an interior that seems as much cabaret/supper club as black-box theater. Truly a family affair, the founders are Amy, Milan, and Joshua Rubenstein, with Evelyn Jacoby as managing director. Valet parking, a full but pricey bar, elegant fireplace, outdoor torches, comfy restrooms–this is not your usual storefront temple of the arts.

Stephen Cefalu, Jr. as Nelson with Keith Kupferer as Arthur Stein on couch in END DAYS. Photo by Justin Barbin

Alas, the good news for this “consecration of the house” would be greater if the inaugural offering were as exciting and groundbreaking as the venue. Deborah Zoe Laufer’s inoffensively conventional 2008 feel-good family drama is a sadly safe choice. Purporting to depict the self-healing of a family presumably traumatized by the events of 9/11, End Days is a 145-minute locksmith comedy: Each character has a key to open the other’s dead-bolt door. But where the pain is unearned, the cure can’t feel real, especially if, by process of elimination, it’s nothing more than “All we have is us” (it’s Voltaire’s “Cultivate your garden” with no Candide to justify the results). Hobbled with unsubtle indicators, Henry Godinez’ earnest staging does an obvious script no favors. Its greatest thrills lie in set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s fascinating detritus, lost objects referencing 9/11 and gaudily dangling above the runway stage.

Steven Strafford as Jesus (foreground) with Tina Gluschenko as Sylvia Stein in END DAYS. Photo by Justin Barbin.

Laufer delivers a functionally dysfunctional family, then fixes them all too easily. Teeming with kooky quirks, the Steins are damaged goods just ready for a formulaic, sitcomic makeover. Mother Sylvia Stein (a very driven Tina Gluschensko) has left the faith of her fathers to embrace Jesus (Steven Strafford), a strolling Savior who affably advises her on the coming Rapture. Born again and proselytizing to the rafters, Rachel wants to save her clan from the “end days.” (this unhelpful Jesus hints that Armageddon will come on a Wednesday–and it mustn’t be confused by a rare September tornado brought on by global warming).

Sari Sanchez as Rachel Stein in END DAYS.

A former businessman now drifting into depression, the father Arthur Stein (salt-of-the-earth Keith Kupferer) lost all his colleagues and his job to the terrorists. Trapped in pajamas and desultorily ineffectual, he can barely bring himself to buy milk. Daughter Rachel (Sari Sanchez, alternately petulant and passionate) is the teenage Goth daughter, riddled with adolescent angst and despising her passive and evangelical parents. She’s all but stalked by the much bullied neighbor kid, bar mitzvah-boy, and classmate Nelson Steinberg (a delightful Stephen Cefalu Jr.). This enthusiast for everything dresses as “Elvis” and rhapsodizes over Stephen Hawking’s astrophysical paeans to worm/black holes. (Symbolically, Strafford plays both Jesus and this explainer of the universe, balancing a secular vision of “end days” with the second coming and Day of Judgment.)

Keith Kupferer as Arthur Stein, Sari Sanchez as Rachel Stein, and Stephen Cefalu, Jr. as Nelson in END DAYS. Photo by Justin Barbin.

Nelson’s kickass ardor for Rachel slowly softens this pouting princess (especially after he turns her onto to Hawking’s hyperrealism): It gradually seems silly to be a female Holden Caulfield looking for “phonies” when there’s so much more to see. She’d rather kiss adorable Nelson seven times than continue screaming in all directions. At the same time the bumptious boy’s curiosity about Arthur melts the seemingly frozen father, replacing his survivor guilt with redemptive memories of reading the Torah.

Set designed and shot by Brian Sidney Bembridge

But, smugly certain of Armageddon, Sylvia refuses to mellow, anguished over whether her loved ones will be good enough to make the grade when the last trumpet separates the wheat from the chaff. Sylvia in effect desires a “do over” of 9/11, a terrorist attack by heaven itself that might make sense of–or at least transcend–the earthly kind. When no Revelations get revealed, we’re supposed to believe that losing her folly is the first step to a new life–that and about four or five group hugs, prompting Oprah-like coos from the crowd.

Keith Kupferer as Arthur Stein, with Tina Gluschenko and Sari Sanchez as Sylvia and Rachel Stein in END DAYS.

Not without some whimsical wisdom and diverting details, End Days is doggedly intent on delivering simple solutions for unfelt crises. The result, despite sturdy work from all involved, is a ton of unearned emotion–despite (it’s hard to tell from this production) unplumbed depths in these supposedly pain-stricken characters. Laufer’s cerebral sitcom means well but her achingly intentional healing barely offers a single surprise.

2388-Windy-City-Playhouse-sign-credit-Michael-Brosilowproduction photos by Justin Barbin
theater photo by Michael Brosilow

End Days
Windy City Playhouse
3014 W. Irving Park Road
Wed and Thurs at 7:30pm;
Fri and Sat at 8pm; Sun alternately at 3 or 5
ends on April 26, 2015 EXTENDED to May 3
for tickets, call 312-374-3196
or visit

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