Take Stephen Adly Guirgis’ exuberant but overstuffed dramaturgy, add the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink directing style of Rupert Goold (helmer of the recent Patrick Stewart “Macbeth”), and you know this European premiere of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” won’t be a model of theatrical restraint. But even as play and production’s excesses madden, Guirgis and Goold reveal a shared complicity in creating opportunities for great performances, which a kick-ass acting company grabs with both hands.
Premiered in 2005 at the Public by the LAByrinth troupe of which Guirgis is a member, the play stages an imagined trial of Jesus’ betrayer in an obscure corner of Purgatory called (cloyingly) Hope. Guirgis addresses a compelling central question of faith — how can we believe God is all-forgiving, if Judas was never forgiven? — using disarmingly contemporary characters and language.
Much of the play’s humor stems from the unlikely communication of serious philosopho-historical material via deliciously profane New Yorkese (“Yo Judas, you got change for 30 pieces of silver, muthafuckah?”) The play clearly comes from a prodigious writing talent — but one that is also precocious and underdisciplined.
The courtroom drama format is employed as a basic structure through which Guirgis can sound off on his chosen ideas and show off some impressive, but too-apparent, research. The evening becomes a series of bravura set-pieces, as character after compelling character is called to the stand, or pops up on various levels of Mark Thompson’s sleek, curving balcony set. In almost every instance, Goold’s cast display impeccable comic timing, and considerable courage in pushing characterizations to the edge of credulity.
A principal case in point is Mark Lockyer, channeling Borat as the lascivious, unctuous Egyptian prosecuting attorney El-Fayoumy. He twitches, he smirks, he lays on the Arab accent with a trowel, and he turns even the most innocuous asides into laugh-out-loud quips.
Lockyer has an excellent foil in Susan Lynch as idealistic defender Cunningham, who plays the role for all the necessary tortured pathos but also knows how to land a punch line.
Corey Johnson as the beleaguered judge, Jessika Williams as street poet Saint Monica, Lone LAByrinth transplant Ron Cephas Jones as Pontius Pilate, and John MacMillan as both Simon the Zealot and the browbeaten bailiff all make a strong impact.
But the juiciest role is Satan, played to acclaim in New York by the swarthy Eric Bogosian. Goold has gone the opposite direction in casting Scottish actor Douglas Henshall. Tall, strawberry-blond and silkily patrician, Henshall’s performance is a comic marvel of ostentatious understatement. A knowing, sexy smirk on his face, this Satan’s danger comes from the energy he generates by doing oh-so-very-little onstage: the odd flick of a walking stick, the cross of a Gucci-trousered leg, the devastating application of one of Guirgis’ well-composed put-downs.
Working hard, but not as effectively, are Joseph Mawle as Judas and Edward Hogg as Jesus: Goold burdens them with symbolic weight by making them stay on stage for a good portion of the action, staring catatonically (in Mawle’s case) or suffering quietly (in Hogg’s). When they finally speak, they reveal the evening’s only mildly dodgy American accents.
Goold has attempted to add texture to what becomes a predictable, witness-after-witness structure by creating breaks in the action using rap music and the projection of urban images (skylines, passing headlights) onto the set. This works initially, but as the production continues, the action, happening in various levels on the stage and in the auditorium, starts to feel more messy than engagingly lively.
It also becomes increasingly apparent that Guirgis doesn’t know when his story should end: While Shane Attwooll delivers it beautifully, the final monologue about an average guy’s betrayal of his wife clangs too openly as the playwright’s unnecessary attempt to bring his play into the here-and-now, given that it was working in a brilliantly contemporary groove all along.