Theater review by Misha Berson: "End Days," a sharp, topical comedy by Deborah Zoe Laufer about a housewife's fear of the apocalypse and the effect on her family, is playing at Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse through Feb. 22.

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Sylvia Stein has a bad case of apocalypse-itis. So bad, that this nonreligious Jewish housewife converts to evangelical Christianity, pals around with the specter of Jesus and spends much of her time trumpeting that the end is nigh.

Sylvia is both delectably kooky and touchingly adrift, as are the other affectionately drawn main characters in “End Days.” The very amusing and sharp-minded comedy by Deborah Zoe Laufer is having its first Seattle airing at the Seattle Public Theater.

Laufer has managed to tap into free-floating, postmillennial American angst without turning her characters into nihilistic wiseacres — not an easy feat. You even wind up caring about their survival if the rapture really does hit tomorrow, as feared.

Heather Hawks portrays Sylvia as unethnic and quite manic, with a permanent look of dazed desperation. This busy woman rushes around foisting Bibles on people, urging them to repent their sins.

But in her own household there are no takers. “You want our souls — the rest of us you can do without,” Sylvia’s teenage daughter Rachel observes acidly, and truthfully.

Heather’s unemployed husband, Arthur (a likable Keith Dahlgren), is tolerant of her born-again gambit, but not up for much of anything himself. A former businessman who barely survived the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, he’s paralyzed by survivor’s guilt. No wonder he rarely sheds his pajamas or leaves the house.

Meanwhile, the bright, sneering Rachel (Carolyn Marie Monroe) rebels against her dad’s torpor and mom’s fanaticism by going Goth. You know — black lipstick, Morticia Addams couture, the whole schmear.

Something has to rattle this suburban family loose, and it arrives in the form of Nelson (Anthony Duckett), a socially challenged classmate of Rachel’s. This adolescent’s unbounded enthusiasm (for impersonating Elvis, among other things) and his hunger for human connection shake all the Steins up — but in a good way.

The interloper-knows-best scenario is comedy standard issue. But Laufer does a lot with it, and director Carol Roscoe and company have a firm handle on the script and the laughs it should (and does) engender.

The phrase “Thank you, Jesus,” takes on new meaning when applied to Sarah’s apparition of a Boy Scout-like Christ, played by a celestial, berobed Evan Whitfield.

The agile Whitfield doubles as another spirit guide: the wheelchair-bound physicist and author Stephen Hawking, whose scathing wit and big-picture scientific look make him the perfect make-believe guru for the alienated Rachel.

But it is the hyper-dorky Nelson who, while stalking Rachel in the name of puppy love, turns her on to Hawking’s books. And in a way that isn’t too pat, he also befriends Sylvia, and even coaxes Arthur out shopping to fill the family’s long-empty fridge.

Duckett has got his adorable-geek persona down. And his go-for-broke portrayal of a friendless kid who refuses to fit in or get bummed out (even when he’s being pelted with milk cartons in the school cafeteria) is priceless. (Both Monroe and Hawkins could use a few more notes in their performances, especially vocally.)

“End Days” slackens toward the end, as it stretches out its tease about how this all will end. With a Big Bang? Or a happy whimper?

But most of this play is wry, incisive and au courant. And did I mention hopeful? That too. Because even if love doesn’t heal everything, it can’t hurt.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com