The 1985 bestseller and nostalgic spoof Growing Up Catholic included a parody of The Baltimore Catechism and asked the following question: “Who’s really in hell?” The answer: “We cannot say for certainty that anyone is in hell, except for maybe Hitler and Judas.” Even though Christians (well, most Christians) are loath to condemn anyone to certain damnation, Judas usually makes the cut, because his twin sins of a bribed betrayal of Jesus followed by submission to despair and subsequent suicide make him a likely candidate for damnation even in a forgiving age. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s new play at New York’s Public Theater, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, examines the curious case of this committed disciple of Jesus, who not only sinned against him, but failed to hear his master’s message of divine mercy and forgiveness.
Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” introduces the court case of God and the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth v. Judas Iscariot, in which Judas (Sam Rockwell) is given a hearing in Purgatory (or Hope, as Guirgis would have it) to determine whether or not he belongs in hell. Though the rules are loose and digressions are constant, this courtroom framework holds the drama together and gives continuity to what often plays as a series of rapid-fire reflections by everyone and their mothers (starting, of course, with the mother of Judas). A steady stream of recognized stars from stage and screen complement the actors of the LAByrinth Theater Company in this moving and thought-provoking drama, and a script liberally sprinkled with humor prevents the somber subject matter from becoming ponderous. Guirgis, whose previous work includes the well-received “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “Our Lady of 121st Street,” is a master of street-smart but intellectually stimulating dialogue, a strength that shows clearly in the characters of “Judas Iscariot.”
Artistic portrayals of the life of Jesus and his disciples are a notoriously dicey proposition. It has been almost a century since Albert Schweitzer noted the universal tendency of Jesus biographers to see a mirror image of themselves in the thoughts and motivations of their famous subject, and the results often bear out his hypothesis, from the treacly and dopey savior of “Jesus Christ Superstar” to the New Age guru of Norman Mailer’s unfortunate novel The Gospel According to the Son. Even when the depiction of Jesus is done respectfully and with care, too many choices have to be made about which aspects of his personality will be emphasized and why. Guirgis wisely avoids the problem by eliminating Jesus almost entirely as a physical presence from the action. Though he is alluded to throughout, Jesus does not appear until the final minutes of the play, by which point John Ortiz’s performance is all the more striking for its understated portrayal.
Because of countless outbursts of profanity and caustic insults throughout the two-and-a-half hours of action by characters ranging from St. Monica to Satan, “Judas Iscariot” is not for children or the faint of heart. Because the play is at its core an extended meditation on the nature of divine mercy and earthly justice, there is also a fair amount of theology bandied about by the actors throughout the performance. Guirgis and the cast had help in this respect from James Martin, S.J. (an associate editor of America), who served as a theological advisor. In addition to the obvious questions that emerge from the subject matter, Guirgis’s characters also riff on everything from the nature of temptation to salvation, atheism, sexual morality, purgatory and prayer.
This theological emphasis has been the focus of many of the show’s negative reviews in the New York press, including the obligatory criticism from The New York Times, where Ben Brantley dismissed it as “a classroom in a progressive parochial school” and “a heavily footnoted position paper on a big, big subject.” Michael Feingold of The Village Voice offered up an unintentionally hilarious take on the same, opining that Guirgis makes “less theological sense than any dramatist who ever tackled the Christ myth,” just in case you were getting your religious cues from The Village Voice. No examples are offered, of course, and one might suspect in all charity that the Voice’s main objection was that a playwright would even tackle such an unseemly subject as religion.
But tackle it Guirgis does, and the litany of witnesses are not shy about defending their own participation in the story, writ large or small. Expected appearances by Pontius Pilate and some of the disciples (including a moving turn by Mums Grant as St. Peter) are intermixed with surprise subpoenas to Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, Satan and even St. Monica, a fast-talking, profane, self-professed nag who “gets results” when she talks to God. Standout performances include Eric Bogosian as Satan and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Pontius Pilate. As a strongarm enthusiast in golfer’s clothing who employs the Nuremburg defense without apology to justify his vicious rule over Judea—he was only following orders—Henderson plays Pilate with devastating effectiveness. When Pilate leaves the stand with a raised fist and a shout to the jury of “Hail Caesar,” the effect is chilling, because the proleptic hint of “Heil Hitler” is not far off.
Satan takes the stand as a suave but jaded lounge lizard with better things to do than get involved in minor matters like one man’s damnation. He is no uncouth bully who assaults his victims through brute force or possession, but instead a clever and beguiling fellow who employs his wiles to strike at Judas’s weakest points. This is much like the Satan of Ignatian spirituality, who uses the misgivings and temptations of his targets to achieve his aims. The whole notion of possession, in fact, is jejune to Satan, who knows he need not enter people to win them over when a well-placed word or temptation will do the job just as well. The role is perfect for Bogosian, whose voice and demeanor both ooze like something still alluring but slightly overripe.
Strong performances by Yul Vazquez (prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy), Callie Thorne (defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham) and Jeffrey De Munn (as judge and also as a spellbinding Caiaphas) illustrate the sorry predicament of characters trapped in their own special “circle of hell”—attacking, accusing, despairing, projecting their own demons in their interrogations and rationalizations. The saints who appear above the stage on special platforms and alcoves offer commentary on the courtroom and reflections on their own call and judgment. By the play’s conclusion, Judas’s character and fate have been nuanced by testimony that both relates directly to him (“Jesus’ favorite,” says Mary Magdalene; like “Tupac,” ventures St. Monica; a jerk “but deserved better,” according to St. Thomas) and fleshes out the other characters.
Judas is found guilty, of course, but everyone else is guilty too, of something, and if they can be forgiven, can’t he as well? The only person who does not believe this is apparently Judas himself, who persists in his catatonic state and is unwilling or unable to accept divine mercy. When Jesus finally meets Judas face to face, he does not judge him but instead washes his feet, as if it were Holy Thursday all over again. In a suddenly silent theater, this scene is striking for its reversal of the courtroom verdict. The ultimate Judge is not bound by the sentence of any court, but extends even to his betrayer the divine mercy Judas and the court have forgotten. As dramatic catharsis, this is artistically effective material; as reflection on the human condition, it is a moving transformation that reworks the cacophony of two hours of courtroom drama to illustrate the power of divine mercy in a way that makes a great deal of theological sense.