If you're going to tackle centuries-old beliefs, especially when they're about one of the most discussed and reviled men in history, you have to do it with real style; how better to rejuvenate endlessly discussed topics? That's why Stephen Adly Guirgis was an ideal playwright to devise The Last Days of Judas Iscariot - how many other writers would envision the prosecution of Judas as a roiling comic fantasia?
But before you roll your eyes or plan a protest, give Guirgis and the LAByrinth Theater Company - which is producing the show at The Public Theater's Martinson Theater - the benefit of the doubt. Yes, laughs abound in the play, which has been directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but serious subjects hardly receive short shrift. The play comes from a question so thoughtful that it could only be asked in earnest: If God is truly all-forgiving, why was Judas condemned to Hell for his betrayal of Jesus Christ and his subsequent suicide?
Guirgis posits that most of today's great decisions are made in courtrooms, so he's set his play in one - specifically, one in Downtown Purgatory, the place where troubled souls wait (sometimes for a very long time) to be permanently assigned to either Heaven or Hell. Arguing in favor of Judas (Sam Rockwell) is Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Callie Thorne); taking charge of his prosecution is Yusef El-Fayoumy (Yul Vázquez).
Both have their own agendas - Fabiana has had a difficult life and isn't secure in her beliefs about God, Yusef is a star-struck bootlicker out to score as many personal points as possible. But occasional eccentricities aside (Fabiana easily flies off the handle; Yusef constantly plays with people's names), they're up to the task, and make their cases clearly when questioning and cross-examining witnesses ranging from real-world figures like Mother Teresa and Sigmund Freud to biblical players small (Judas's mother, Simon the Zealot) and large (Pontius Pilate, Satan).
There are times that this threatens to disintegrate into nothing more than a colorful pageant of personalities, but Guirgis and Hoffman do everything they can to keep the proceedings grounded. They're not always successful: Attempts to inject less biased views of Judas with flashbacks to earlier points in his life never provide information in ways as engaging or enlightening as the court proceedings do. And the ladders and platforms scenic designer Andromache Chalfant uses to frame the simple courtroom set don't always make following the action easy.
But when there are payoffs, they're huge: Stephen McKinley Henderson is a magnetic Pilate, violently challenging the combative Fabiana about her own prejudices in one of the show's most disquieting scenes; Jeffrey DeMunn as Caiaphas the Elder encourages a re-examination of modern attitudes toward sympathy for the trod-upon of ages past; and Eric Bogosian (costumed by Mimi O'Donnell as a greasy mob boss) chillingly embodies Satan, who subtly plays all sides against the middle in a campaign against moralizing in all its forms.
Other performances vary in effectiveness: Thorne is attractively all business, but overplays her character's angrier moments, while Vázquez tends to overplay everything; Deborah Rush paints a fine portrait of despondency as Judas's eternally grieving mother; and Elizabeth Rodriguez creates plenty of likeable traits in the abrasive, expletive-spewing Saint Monica, who intervenes on Fabiana's behalf to give Judas his day in court. Perhaps tellingly, Judas is reduced to a supporting character in his own story; Rockwell plays him well enough, giving him an oddly appealing tarnished innocence, but has few opportunities to demonstrate the ambiguities of the character that Guirgis uses everyone else to address.
Instead, it's our reactions to him and his actions that are on trial. This is movingly driven home in the show's closing monologue, delivered by Butch Honeywell (Kohl Sudduth), a member of Judas's jury who compares his own marital betrayals with Judas's betrayal of Jesus. With Butch standing between Judas and Jesus (a quietly intense John Ortiz), who's spent most of the evening trying to rouse his near-catatonic fallen friend, the message about what we've inherited from Judas's perfidy - and the ensuing animosity - is unavoidable.
This is the play's penultimate image; the last is more affecting still, depicting how Jesus acts toward Judas, despite all the two have been through. The moment is logical, provocative, but inconclusive: Does Jesus forgive Judas? Should He? Should we? And what was Judas's true nature?
Perhaps no one sums up the play better than Bogosian's Satan: "I don't believe in good and bad," he states matter-of-factly. "What I believe in is truth." So, unquestionably, does Guirgis. As to whether he's found it in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, the jury is still out. That he's done an excellent job conducting the search cannot be doubted.
The Public Theater