Play Asks: Can Science And Religion Get Along? In End Days, playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer takes on science, religion and Elvis. Laufer explains how she uses scientific theories to explore human nature in her writing and why she wanted the same actor to play Jesus Christ and Stephen Hawking.
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Play Asks: Can Science And Religion Get Along?

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Play Asks: Can Science And Religion Get Along?

Play Asks: Can Science And Religion Get Along?

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For the rest of the hour, if you're looking to take in a play this weekend, I can suggest a very good one. It's playing right here, closing soon in New York, and it has a highly unusual cast of characters.

In fact, it's a play where you can see Stephen Hawking, Jesus and Elvis all on the same stage. And "End Days," that's the name of the play, is currently at the Ensemble Studio Theatre here in New York. And it takes on the challenging question of what's faith's role in science? What's science's role in religion? Is one man's Jesus another man's Stephen Hawking and another man's Elvis?

And playwright and science enthusiast Deborah Zoe Laufer is here to take us behind the curtain to talk about her new play.


Ms. DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER (Playwright): Thank you very much. I'm really happy to be here.

FLATOW: I thought it was a great play.

Ms. LAUFER: Thank you.

FLATOW: I just was - I was blown away by how interesting you made all those characters.

Ms. LAUFER: Thank you. I'm glad to hear it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So, let me see if I can go through the plot, because the plot is a little - it's very interesting on its own. You have this teenage girl, Rachel Stein, right?

Ms. LAUFER: Right.

FLATOW: She is struggling with her newly born again evangelical mother, Sylvia.

Ms. LAUFER: Right. Their family has been through trauma and they're -everybody's dealing with it in a different way. And the father is deeply depressed and hasn't gotten out of his pajamas in, who knows, months maybe.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah.

FLATOW: And then the next door neighbor shows up.

Ms. LAUFER: Right. And he's…

FLATOW: He's - he's - he's Elvis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: He comes on the stage as Elvis.

Ms. LAUFER: Well, he dresses as Elvis because his mom, who had died, loved Elvis and really thought of Elvis as the savior. There's a lot of different saviors in the play.

FLATOW: And at one point, you know, and she, the mother who is the born again Christian, is waiting for the end of days to happen there, right?

Ms. LAUFER: Right.

FLATOW: And she's told by - she thinks she's told by Jesus that it's on a Wednesday.

Ms. LAUFER: Right.

FLATOW: So she's trying to get everybody ready for that day to happen.

Ms. LAUFER: Right.

FLATOW: And they're not very cooperative.

Ms. LAUFER: No. No. And I've taken a lot of really broad scientific ideas and sort of made a metaphor. And one of the big ideas of the play that I - I'm just thrilled about the Large Hadron Collider. And so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAUFER: …you know, if you slam together particles with enough speed, you'll break them apart and see what's inside. And so I've sort of brought together four vastly different points of view, and they're forced together for this 24-hour period. And they sort of crash into each other and you see what they're made of. I mean I don't know if that's a metaphor…

FLATOW: No, I like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: No, I like that. Yeah.

Ms. LAUFER: But it spurs me on when I'm writing.

FLATOW: But you also brought on Stephen Hawking as a character, in the chair and driving around and even in the voice that he - that artificial voice he uses.

Ms. LAUFER: Right. I have - Stephen Hawking and Christ are played by the same actor. And the mother, she's - well, Christ just comes to live with them. I mean, she really does walk with Jesus, and he's really saved her and given her hope and a reason to get up in the morning.

And her daughter reads "Brief History of Time" and, sort of, has the same conversion to science. And so Stephen Hawking visits her when she's been using chemical substances, and gives her the same, sort of, hope and feeling, life is worth living…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah.

FLATOW: And they coexist, religion and science in this, in the same play?

Ms. LAUFER: In the same play, yeah. And that was another metaphor. I think it's dangerous to have playwrights near science because the metaphors are almost irresistible, but, so I have a quantum field theory, where, you know, like could be there are particle or wave.

You know, if you ask a particle-like question, you get a particle-like answer; and if you ask a wave-like question, you get a wave-like answer. You can't just ask them at the same time. And I feel like religion and science - that there are some great scientists who are deeply religious.

And I, sort of, have posed that you could believe in both things at the same time. You just can't ask those questions in the same way at the same time. So that's, sort of, where I've, you know, what I've posed.

FLATOW: When did you - you were a graduate student at Juilliard. You were resident playwright at Juilliard. You have this strong arts background.

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Did you discover someday on, like, gee, I like science too.

Ms. LAUFER: It had happened almost like...


Ms. LAUFER: …it happened to Rachel. I guess, little by little, I was interested, and then I read "Brief History of Time" and it was, sort of, fabulous for me. I just fell in love with it.

FLATOW: Did you have any scientist that you would throw ideas at? Gee, is - am I phrasing this incorrectly, you know, during the writing of the play.

Ms. LAUFER: I didn't. I have friends who are physicists.

FLATOW: Uh-oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAUFER: So, I gave it to them to make sure I wasn't way off track, and they said it was okay. And then, you get assigned a scientist through the Sloan Foundation when you get a grant, which is really great to have your own physicist. So I had - Gabriel Cwilich was my physicist. And we just, you know, he really - we just sat and talked mostly. He told me it was okay, what I had written, which was really what I wanted to hear.

FLATOW: How did you discover the Large Hadron Collider as a topic that interested you?

Ms. LAUFER: I just read a lot of science now. I read whatever I can find. I read - I get a lot of magazines that my father sends to me, and I read the Science Times, and I listen constantly. And so I've been excited about it for years. And then, you know, the day they were finally launching it, I had probably 50 calls and e-mails. Everybody was so excited.


Ms. LAUFER: We were really disappointed that it didn't go.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's still getting its repair work done.

Ms. LAUFER: I know. I have faith.

FLATOW: Yeah. Is there another science play in you?

Ms. LAUFER: Oh, yeah. My next play, I want to write about the human genome. They've - there's a new book out, I can't remember…

FLATOW: You pick such uncontroversial…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAUFER: I pick things that worry me or that I don't understand, really. Most of my plays are about things that confuse me or intrigue me, I guess. But there's the new theory that the genome, you could trace not only propensity toward diseases, but personality traits. And I just think it's going to make us really reassess what it is to be human and what personality is.

FLATOW: Yeah. Right. I'm talking with a playwright this hour. The play is called "End Days." And I'm talking to Deborah Zoe Laufer - it's Laufer, right…

Ms. LAUFER: It's Laufer, yeah.

FLATOW: …who is here in our studios here in New York. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. And the play has gone around the country a bit, has it not?

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah. This is its sixth production or seventh, and it's going to have a couple more coming up. It's playing in Salt Lake City right now.

FLATOW: Oh, that should be interesting.

Ms. LAUFER: I know. I wish I could see it out there. It sounds like a great production, and it's doing really well.

FLATOW: And what kind of ranking do you get from the audiences?

Ms. LAUFER: It's really varies a lot, depending on where it was.

FLATOW: On what part of the country that it…

Ms. LAUFER: It really does.


Ms. LAUFER: I wish I could see it all over the place. Like in Florida, I didn't expect people to be concerned about the fact that this Jewish woman had become born-again, and that was a big issue there.

FLATOW: Did you know anything about evangelism before you…

Ms. LAUFER: I didn't. I heard on NPR that 40 percent of the country was evangelical, and I thought, gee, I don't know a thing about that. I should probably find out what that means. So I started reading like crazy. And…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Was it intentional to have the same actor play Jesus and Stephen Hawking?

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah. I really love that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAUFER: It makes for some very quick changes, but…


Ms. LAUFER: …it's fun.

FLATOW: But the - but it's very interesting that you have the same person playing, you know, a scientist, who - I don't think - I think he's probably an atheist, and Jesus at the same time.

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: How did you get him to get such a great Stephen Hawking voice, you know, that electronic Speak and Spell voice. How did you…

Ms. LAUFER: He's a good actor. He's just good.

FLATOW: Did he have to practice that a lot?

Ms. LAUFER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. He's good. He's funny. And he's always - he's inventive. He's always coming up with something, Paco Tolson.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And is there something that you would do differently now with the play's been out. Would you add something, a little change something at all or thinking you got it, more or less…

Ms. LAUFER: I'm always looking - I go to almost every show because it's only three weeks, and I can't bear that it's going to end. But, you know, there's always lines, I think, oh, I should have cut that line. But for the most part, I like it.

FLATOW: Why can't we get a show like this, which I think is Pulitzer material? I loved it. I mean, I've been to the Ensemble Studio Theater a lot, seen a lot of science shows. And I've seen a lot of science plays. And I thought this was terrific.

Ms. LAUFER: Thanks.

FLATOW: And every time I leave, I say to myself, why isn't there a larger audience?

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Why can't we get this at a larger production? What holds up something like this?

Ms. LAUFER: I don't know. But if anyone is listening with a big checkbook…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAUFER: It really just takes one person to decide it should move, you know? I just need one person to come and think.

FLATOW: Now, let's see if we can push - talking with playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, who is joining us here in New York. Her play is "End Days" and it runs through this weekend?

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah. Closes Sunday.

FLATOW: Closes of Sunday here in New York. And it's headed to other theaters around.

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah. It's going to open in Georgia next month, and it's going to be at People's Light outside Philadelphia in the summer. Yeah.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me see if we can get a question or two in 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Mark(ph) in St. Paul.

MARK (Caller): Good day. One of the request - considering all the controversy that (unintelligible) over on poor Darwin. Even though he wasn't trying to do that, who would you like to try and match against him?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah. If you'll put Darwin in a play with somebody.

Ms. LAUFER: Oh, that's a good idea. I don't know. If you come up with somebody, let me know.

MARK: Well, the only one can I think of would be against that, but the one that I wouldn't want to recommend would be the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah. No. You could write that play.

MARK: No, thanks. I'm not interested in being target zero for bunch of lunatics.


MARK: (Unintelligible).

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

MARK: Yeah.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get another caller, from Fred(ph) in Buffalo, New York. Hi, Fred.

FRED (Caller): Hey, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

FRED: Good. First off, I want to, you know, express my support for the compatibility of science and faith. I am, by the way, I'm a Protestant minister here in this area, and I often come up against the problem of people thinking there's - science and faith are at war. And I want to express my support for kind of putting the word out there that they're not necessarily at war, that there's great compatibility between science and faith, and…

FLATOW: Fred, hang on a second. I have to remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Okay, go ahead. Sorry.

FRED: Thank you. Thank you. And…

FLATOW: Have you got a question?

FRED: I wanted to ask the playwright if she, when she was writing, if she came across the idea of the anthropic principle, which comes out of physics, which sort of says that there's this, kind of, there's this - it's not the same as creationism, but it's this idea that the universe has a tendency to produce thinking, self-aware creatures. And that the reason, you know, there's two different possibilities for something to happen, and they're equally possible. The more likely one is, sort of, (unintelligible) tilt that possibility towards the (unintelligible) in average is…

FLATOW: All right. Fred, we're running out time. Let me see if I can get an answer for you. Are you familiar with…

Ms. LAUFER: I'm not really familiar with that, but I just want to - I did want to say that I agree with you that they're probably - science and religion are compatible. And I feel like the last eight years it's been very polarizing, and that science has sort of been under attack. And…

FLATOW: Did you feel that this is your contribution?

Ms. LAUFER: I do feel that it is. I mean, it was very scary to me that religion was becoming - it was becoming the alternative to science, when I don't think it had to be a choice. And so - that's very much one of the things that my play is offering.

I mean, the character of Nelson can embrace all of those things. He's both -he's happy to be both evangelical and Jewish and a science maven and really doesn't see a contradiction in all of that. And while that might not be possible for any of us, I think it's an, you know, an idea worth looking at that all those things can exist without damning any of them.

FLATOW: In fact, you have him as the Elvis character. And at one point, we're wondering whether he is the Messiah or not.

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: That was an amazing point. I don't want to give the play away, but that was an amazing point in the play where we're all sitting and wondering, gee…

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah.

FLATOW: …could Elvis be the, you know, a different kind of - does the Messiah mean something differently?

Ms. LAUFER: Right.

FLATOW: Would we recognize the Messiah if…

Ms. LAUFER: Exactly. If he came to the door, would you know him? Yeah.

FLATOW: How long did it take you to write this?

Ms. LAUFER: It took me two years. I really researched like crazy. It was probably 300 pages when I finished, and then I just…

FLATOW: Whittled it down?

Ms. LAUFER: Whittled it down to about 100, yeah.


Ms. LAUFER: Yeah. So…

FLATOW: And the research was about - was it about physics, or was it more about religion?

Ms. LAUFER: Both. Each character - I mean, I read a lot about depression for the father. Each character, I read a lot.

FLATOW: He gradually - he's depressed since 9/11. He lost - his company lost 100 people almost in…

Ms. LAUFER: Yeah.

FLATOW: And he's slowly working his way back, the whole family is slowly resolving his problem, is it not?

Ms. LAUFER: Right. I mean, hopefully, what they learned for the play is that they can have very different ideas and still - what they all need is each other. They all need shared humanity and community and family.

FLATOW: Yeah. There's no better way to end a Friday than that. Thank you, Deborah.

Ms. LAUFER: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Deborah Zoe Laufer is the playwright at the Ensemble Studio Theatre at - it's at 549 West 52nd Street here. And the play is called "End Days." It's running through Sunday.

Deborah Zoe Laufer hopes it goes to other cities or around the country. And so do I, because you'll miss out on a great play if it doesn't go out there.

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