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Sam Rockwell and John Ortiz
in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Has Judas Iscariot suffered long enough? He's languished in Hell since he committed suicide following his betrayal of Jesus Christ, but does he really deserve to be there? In The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis makes a case for the potential redemption of the most infamous sinner in the Bible -- or, rather, he has Judas' defense attorney make it.

The ambitious production, co-presented by LAByrinth Theater Company and The Public Theater, has much to recommend it. It's witty, irreverent, epic in scope, and it showcases several outstanding performances; yet it also features a number of weaker actors, has a sprawling narrative that doesn't quite come together, and is in serious need of editing.

The action centers around a courtroom in Purgatory. Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Callie Thorne) appeals the sentence of eternal damnation that has been handed to her client, Judas Iscariot (Sam Rockwell). At first, the presiding judge (Jeffrey DeMunn) dismisses the seemingly ludicrous case, but Cunningham is persistent. She asks Saint Monica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) to intercede and, eventually, the judge can ignore her no longer. Arguing for the prosecution is Yusef El-Fayoumy (Yul Vázquez), a rather inept lawyer who is himself "temporarily" detained in Hell, which he attributes to a problem with his papers.

The play never actually explains how Judas became Cunningham's client; whenever the audience is given a glimpse of Judas in Hell, he is in such a catatonic state that it's obvious he didn't hire the lawyer. It's also unclear what Cunningham gets out of arguing the case. She's not even sure that she believes in God, and her interactions with Satan (Eric Bogosian) make it clear that she's not trying to do the devil any favors. An intriguing possibility is that she was hired by Jesus Christ (John Ortiz). This would be in keeping with the portrayal of Jesus within the play; however, at no point is this actually stated or even hinted at.

Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is often broadly farcical. Several cast members give over-the-top performances, not always to good effect. Vázquez, for example, plays nothing more than a caricature and gets (some) laughs due to his wacky delivery. On the other hand, the high-octane approach is well-suited to Rodriguez's foul-mouthed Saint Monica, whose energy and attitude is complemented by a depth of feeling that is not in evidence in Vázquez's performance.

Rockwell's portrayal of the play's title character, primarily in flashback sequences, is uneven. The actor is not that convincing when portraying Judas at age eight but he acquits himself quite well when he converses with Satan at a bar following his betrayal of Jesus. Bogosian is a treat as the devil, who is on such friendly terms with the judge that the latter calls him "Lu" (short for Lucifer). A snazzy dresser (costumes by Mimi O'Donnell), Satan is friendly and laid-back one moment but capable of supreme nastiness the next.

Among the other witnesses called to testify, the standouts are Stephen McKinley Henderson as a riveting Pontius Pilate and DeMunn, stepping down as judge in order to do double duty as a conflicted Caiaphas the Elder. The testimony from Judas' mother could be interesting but is not as performed here by Deborah Rush, who lacks expressiveness and seems to be saying her lines by rote. To make matters worse, it's her character that opens the play, so things don't start on a good note. One of Adly Guirgis's conceits is to have more recently deceased individuals such as Sigmund Freud (Adrian Martinez) and Mother Theresa (Liza Colón Zayas) also take the stand. While it makes some sense for Freud to serve as a psychiatric expert, the sequence with Mother Theresa has little bearing on the case at hand, and an extended joke about her being hard of hearing goes on too long without much of a payoff.

Adrian Martinez, Yul Vázquez, and Jeffrey DeMunn in
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
There are a number of other scenes that, like this one, could either be edited or eliminated entirely. For example, an expository speech by new angel Gloria (Colón Zayas again) at the top of the play doesn't seem all that necessary, and the more crucial information contained in it could easily be given to one of the other characters to impart. A second act conversation between Saint Monica and Mary Magdalene (Yetta Gottesman) could also be dropped without losing much.

Andromache Chalfant's set design includes a second tier that surrounds the main playing area on three sides. This is where several saints give speeches, as if from Heaven on high -- but, curiously, the scenes in Hell also take place on this elevated platform. Since sections of the audience seating are located directly underneath, it appears that some patrons do not have great sightlines for the action taking place above them.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a departure for Adly Guirgis in that it's much more allegorical than such previous works as Jesus Hopped the A Train and Our Lady of 121st Street. But, as the titles of those plays indicate, there are commonalities, as well. Most significantly, the playwright returns to the theme of redemption -- or, at least, the possibility of redemption.

The closing sequence of the play is one of its strongest yet seems oddly detached from the main proceedings. Jury foreman Butch Honeywell (Kohl Sudduth) delivers a lengthy, moving speech reminding the audience that betrayals do not have to be on the scale of that committed by Judas to have a debilitating effect on the lives (and afterlives) of those guilty of them. This monologue is followed by a touching interaction between Judas and Jesus, riveting in its simplicity. If the entire play were as well-written and compellingly performed as this sequence, the production would be much more satisfying.

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