Stephen Adly Guirgis has written a real jaw-dropper — a courtroom drama that makes a compelling argument for lifting the “eternal damnation” sentence on Judas Iscariot, the most reviled sinner in biblical history. Set in Purgatory and featuring A-list religious figures from Satan to Mother Teresa, this expressionistic fantasy draws on sound theological doctrine to advance its soul-searching meditations on guilt and redemption. But its contempo style is so shockingly iconoclastic — with its raw language and flamboyantly street-savvy characters — that it seems sure to outrage conventional Christian sensibilities and attract the faith-and-values police. (Translation for regional nonprofits: Don’t even think of applying for an NEA grant to stage it.)
Philip Seymour Hoffman has done a spectacular job of mounting this bombshell for the LAByrinth Theater Company, which also went the distance for Guirgis on “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “Our Lady of 121st Street.” Treating the vaulted interior of the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall (distressed into shabby-chic splendor by designer Andromache Chalfant) as a kind of town hall for social misfits, Hoffman goes for a presentational style that restores the good name of old-fashioned courtroom oratory and gives actors plenty of space to breathe.
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Presiding over a depressed portal of the underworld ironically known as Hope, Jeffrey DeMunn holds forth as the bellowing judge forced to hear the legal appeal brought on behalf of Judas by a scrappy defense attorney (Callie Thorne), who has her own reasons for seeking love and forgiveness for a damned sinner. Her legal adversary (Yul Vazquez) is an unctuous toe-sucker whose ulterior motive is to win legal passage to heaven by flattering anyone and everyone in a position of power.
True to their calling, the lawyers take too long to make their cases, and the prelims do drag on. But once the jury of the dead and near-dead are in place and the first witnesses are called, drama takes on a breathtaking dynamic.
Biblical figures like Mary Magdalene and historical characters such as Sigmund Freud present their views alongside hard-working angels like Gloria (Liza Colon-Zayas), who makes occasional fly-bys to earth, and just-plain-folks like Butch Honeywell (Kohl Sudduth), the jury foreman who brings a six-pack to Judas’ cell when he delivers the verdict.
While Guirgis’ earnest plea for tempering justice with mercy is hardly revolutionary, his imagination is dazzling and his command of language downright thrilling. Hearing his theological arguments delivered in the rough idioms and unsophisticated accents heard on urban streets is to hear them loud and clear. In giving St. Monica the attitude of a hooker and St. Peter the voice of a dockworker, Guirgis is not diminishing their characters but attesting to their common humanity — and adding punch to their testimony.
To be sure, not everyone’s testimony is riveting. (A little bit of Caiaphas the Elder goes a long way.) And not even Jesus of Nazareth (the lamb-gathering Jesus of the catechism in John Ortiz’s gentle perf) gets the drop on Satan, who delivers the smartest lines, wears the sharpest clothes and has stage presence to burn, so to speak, in Eric Bogosian’s slicker-than-spit perf.
“You wanna play the lute, sing Mary-Chapin Carpenter, that’s what heaven’s for,” he consoles a remorseful Judas when he runs into him at Bathsheba’s Bar & Grill. “You wanna rock? Hell’s the venue.”
But even though he is largely confined to his cell in a state of catatonic depression, Judas is the guy to watch. The picture of woe in Sam Rockwell’s hollow-eyed perf, the most despised of all sinners turns out to be the most human of all the souls in hell: the Everyman of the afterlife, as Guirgis would have it. Guilty of the unforgivable sin of despair, he is the modern man who can’t forgive himself — not even when pardoned by the friend he betrayed. In our shamelessly guilt-free culture, the man whose name has become synonymous with guilt is something of a hero.
Despite being delivered in a hail of profanity, by characters modeled from the most contemporary of human clay, the arguments for Judas’ reclamation carry surprising weight. Deborah Rush delivers a heartbreaking plea from Judas’ mother arguing, as mothers will, that there is no God if God cannot be moved by love. Simon the Zealot (Salvatore Inzerillo) offers the political apologia that Judas was just trying to goad the Messiah into leading a revolt against the Romans and “start kicking ass like He was supposed to.” Freud analyzes Judas as psychotic and concludes, “Any God who punishes the mentally ill is not worth worshiping.”
Even Satan points out, in his serenely logical (and snidely ironical) way, that if there are “design flaws” in the concept of free will (“C’mon, you really think we have a choice?”), then Judas can hardly be held accountable for his actions.
The other side also gets to speak its piece in this bizarre court. In one powerhouse scene, a pitiless Pontius Pilate (Stephen McKinley Henderson) testifies that he rejected Judas’ recantation because it was grounded in fear, not remorse. “His fear left no room for remorse,” Pilate says. “His fear was 100% ego-driven and self-serving.”
But in the end, the most persuasive voice is that of Butch (in a moving perf by Sudduth), an average Joe sensitive enough to realize that, although Judas deserves forgiveness, the profound guilt he carries like a cross wouldn’t allow him to accept his own redemption. It’s a Calvinist view, hard and uncompromising, but honestly arrived at and eloquently stated by Guirgis, who has used his time in Purgatory well.