The National Catholic Review
In late October 2004, James Martin, S.J., an associate editor of America, got a surprise phone call from the actor Sam Rockwell. Sam was developing his role as Judas for an Off-Broadway production of a new play, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Because Sam was without religious training, he wanted a sketch of Christianity, the ministry of Jesus and anything else that would be useful for getting inside Judas’s skin.

In this fascinating memoir of his six months with the play, Martin notes:

Each answer I gave to one of Sam’s questions prompted a digression that led to yet another question. We jumped from the book of Genesis to Charlton Heston’s performance in “The Ten Commandments,” from the origin of the phrase doubting Thomas to Martin Luther and the Reformation, from the rosary to Saint Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, from the work of a Jesuit priest to Christian fundamentalism, from Mary Magdalene to Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” from the Eastern Orthodox Church to the contradictory accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospels.

Soon after that Martin was contacted by Stephen Adly Guirgis himself as he was still finishing his play. Author of such works as “Our Lady of 121st Street” and “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” he seemed to Martin religious by nature. “Underneath many of his foul-mouthed characters were men and women, usually poor and unlucky, who had nonetheless not given up searching for meaning, for answers, and for a modicum of faith.”

And so it was with many of the 15 actors for whom “Father Jim” was not just a theological adviser but, in the words of the playwright in the book’s foreword, “a cheerleader, a rabbi, and a friend.” “When they first contacted me,” Martin writes, “I had expected a few meetings and a couple of hours flipping through some old theology books, with perhaps a handful of free tickets thrown in for my efforts.” But he soon found himself caring about the LAByrinth Theater Company’s production, not just because of the evangelizing good that could come from it, but because “I was having fun.... For the first time, I was seeing how satisfying teaching could be, especially when the material was already so meaningful in my own life.”

The play’s director was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had just completed his starring role in the film “Capote,” for which he would receive an Academy Award. Celebrated writer and monologist Eric Bogosian would play Satan, and the cast was rounded out by those co-stars and walk-ons whose faces are vaguely familiar but whose names are not. Cuban-born Yul Vázquez, for example, had been a recurring character on “Seinfeld,” John Ortiz, who played Jesus, would soon land parts in “Miami Vice” and “American Gangster,” and in the next year Callie Thorne would be juggling roles in “Rescue Me,” “The Wire” and “ER.” Each of them became friends to Martin, and he deftly interlaces his memoir with intriguing background on the cast, focusing not only on their faith in God but also their often conflicted feelings about organized religion.

Woven in, too, are smart commentaries on the Gospels, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the paucity of information on Judas, the benefits of celibacy, the Jesus of history, the problem of despair and other topics that the increasingly inquisitive cast and playwright brought to him.

The first joint readings of the play commenced in January 2005 at the Public Theater, and as the actors began to “get up” to play their parts, Martin felt his Christological and scriptural insights were becoming extraneous. “But as the rehearsals continued,” he writes, “and the actors began to confess some of their worries and struggles, as well as their joys and excitements, I found that my role shifted from theological adviser to chaplain. That was a role I was happier to play.”

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” opened on March 2, 2005, and the reviewers called it either “extraordinary” or “woeful.” There seemed to be no middle ground. The overtly religious nature of the play, combined with its nearly four-hour length and the profanity in the script, met with some critical resistance, though not from the Catholic priests and nuns who were Martin’s guests and loved it.

The four-week run ended on April 3, and with it came Martin’s own misgivings over his loss of so many nights. But he concludes that he had been trying to do what Jesuits are supposed to do: encounter people in all sorts of settings, especially unusual ones. “There are a number of ways of expressing this goal: helping souls, being on the margins,” he writes.

My favorite definition of our work comes from the theologian John Courtney Murray who said that Jesuits should explain the church to the world, and the world to the church. And maybe standing on an Off-Broadway stage after midnight talking about forgiveness wasn’t such a bad way of aiming for that goal.

A Jesuit Off-Broadway is a charming and enthralling memoir, the ninth book in eight years by a skillful, likeable and intelligent writer whose candid portraits of his life in the Society of Jesus and the secular world may one day rival the journals of Thomas Merton.

Ron Hansen is a professor of English at Santa Clara University, Calif. His novel Exiles will be published in May.

Comments

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 2/2/2008 - 7:04pm
In my opinion James Martin, S.J., in his five star book, "A Jesuit Off-Broadway" images the Apostle Paul, becoming "all things to all men" allowing those lucky enough to own the book to better understand Jesus and also one's own persona in relation to Jesus, and to one another. "A Jesuit Off-Broadway" is not just a highly spirited book, but also a new kind of spiritual reading book. Fr. Martin makes the transcendent tangible, touchable, edible - a very nourishing pot pourri of delectable soul-food, a lip-smacking experience! In synthesis the spirituality of "A Jesuit Off-Broadway" has nothing to do with saccharin sanctity, the kind that would have us believe that, so given to penance were some saints that even as babies, they would turn away from their Mother's breasts sacrificially! The Baby Saints were probably not hungry and just needed to be burped! Instead, the book is like a rush of down-to-earth spirituality, a salty and peppery spirituality, a kind of fly on the nose of Jesus on the Cross that he couldn't swat away spirituality, a true to life spirituality that sinners can understand and saints should. The book's a great read, well written in a style unique to James Martin, S.J. Iliked it!