January 9, 2008 After Sam Rockwell had been tapped to play Judas Iscariot on stage, he made enquiries at a Manhattan church and was given Martin’s name.
Though Rockwell’s Irish Catholic grandmother brought him to church in early childhood, his parents weren’t observant and he had virtually no religious knowledge before he befriended the Jesuit author.
Their first discussion into the early hours led directly to Martin’s months-long involvement with a production that opened eventually to a sell-out run at the Public Theater in Manhattan in early 2005.
“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” was directed by someone who’s been called the “greatest actor of his generation,” performed by a close-knit troupe of Off-Broadway players, several of whom were familiar from television, and written by one of America’s most original contemporary dramatists.
That director was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had just finished filming “Capote” for which he went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor, as well as a Bafta and a Golden Globe. Like most others involved with the project, the acclaimed actor sat down with Martin to discuss his religious background and his ideas about faith.
The troupe was the LAByrinth Theater Company, co-founded 15 years ago by New York City native John Ortiz, after he graduated from Albany State University in the early 1990s.
And the playwright was Stephen Adly Guirgis, who’d made a name for himself with plays like “Our Lady of 121st Street” and “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” which was nominated for the Olivier award in London for best new play in 2002.
Martin, who is an editor at America magazine, writes that Guirgis’s characters are “usually poor and unlucky, who had nonetheless not given up searching for meaning, for answers, and for a modicum of faith.”
The playwright was raised by a devout Irish Catholic mother and an Egyptian immigrant father who was baptized into the Coptic Christian church. Both parents encouraged him to go to Mass, but he drifted away as he got older.
He told Martin: “The last several years have been about trying to reconnect and get closer with whatever it is that God is. This play about Judas is part of that journey.”
Martin, in an interview with the Echo, said of the actors: “They were exposed to religious questions in a way that was comfortable for them. They were happy to have an environment where no question was out of bounds.
“They really want to get to know their characters,” he said. “That naturally led to questions about Jesus, who was Jesus and what was he like and why would Judas have betrayed Jesus?”
Martin and the actors discussed theological issues such as “what does it mean to be fully human and fully divine?”
“The story of Jesus is naturally attractive and naturally interesting to people no matter whether where you fall on the religious spectrum,” he said.
Martin, who’s 46, was familiar with representations of the Gospel story on stage and screen. A personal favorite is Franco Zefirelli’s 1977 mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth,” even if, he says, the Messiah, as played by Robert Powell, sounds as if he’d been educated at Oxford.
He believes that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has certain strengths, but writes “that it substantially tips the balance of responsibility to the Jews in ways unsupported by historical evidence – and does so while asserting its historical accuracy.”
Since his earliest days as seminarian, Martin has had a particular interest in the “historical Jesus,” an area of study that relies on the latest scholarship in several disciplines.
“I believe the more you know about his time, the more you can understand Jesus,” he said. “And the more you understand Jesus, the more you understand your faith.”
Martin rejects the fundamentalism that is widespread in the United States today, but is also critical of scholars who, uncomfortable with the miracles and the Resurrection at the core of the faith, reduce Jesus to being “just a really nice guy” or a “bland moralist.”
The best known of the LAByrinth Theater Company regulars, Philip Seymour Hoffman, said in one group discussion about Jesus: “Were he alive today, he would be causing havoc!”
Hoffman was raised Catholic in upstate New York. (His ethnic background is partly Irish. His mother Marilyn O’Connor, qualified as a lawyer in her 30s, became a civil rights activist and later a family court judge.) The future actor was prepared for confirmation, but didn’t hear much about God from his parents.
One of his sisters, however, became an evangelical Christian. Hoffman went to meetings with her, but couldn’t make a commitment after he became involved with acting. In Martin’s account, the Oscar winner emerges as a believer, one who wishes that liberal Christians were more visible and outspoken in the United States.
The “Judas” players came from a variety of religious backgrounds. Martin skillfully interweaves their stories with his narrative of the play’s progress in rehearsal and his asides on biblical and theological issues – all the while imparting an infectious enthusiasm for the project.
The cast had one serious practitioner of Zen, in Kohl Sudduth, and several others who had flirted with Buddhism. Deborah Rush was educated in Catholic schools, while Eric Bogosian, whose family belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church, was widely read in biblical literature.
Most, though, learnt a good deal along the way. “A lot of things I said surprised them,” Martin remembered. “For example, what the early church was like and how the disciples were very contentious among themselves.
“And how the saints were human. We had a very interesting conversation about poverty of spirit, which is a really important topic in the play,” he added.
“One of the things I think that made an impression was when we talked about Jesus choosing Peter because he was weak, not because he was strong. He understood his reliance on Jesus, his reliance on God,” he said. “They were surprised that a priest would be saying something like that.”
Martin added: “I think all the actors felt the process changed them, in one way or another.”
And the priest felt it changed him, too, not least because, he said, making new friends always changes a person.
“I found them to be very affectionate and spontaneous, and an authentic group of people. I live in an environment which is not as spontaneous,” he said. “The Catholic Church is not a very spontaneous organization. It takes them centuries to do something.
“And these were people who were very much in the moment,” he said of the free-spirited and occasionally hard-partying troupe.
He said that the group interacted as equals. Some of the less experienced actors, nonetheless, were “really in awe of Phil’s talents and I was too,” he said, referring to Hoffman.
“I felt awkward around him at first. But very quickly he and the other actors who more well-known put everyone else at their ease,” Martin recalled.
“One of things I learnt from them mostly was their humility,” he said. “I say in the book that they almost never would they refer to a movie that they had done or a TV show or people that they knew.
“We’re supposed to be humble guys and I learnt a lot about humility from them,” he said.
“Phil Hoffman was just finished ‘Capote’ and he never mentioned it, which takes some doing. I don’t know if I’d be able to not mention my books.”
“There’s no posturing when I meet them now,” he said. “It’s really quite remarkable. In church circles there’s a lot more of that than there was in this group of people.
“And it was fun to hang around talented, creative people who were doing something new,” he said.
“It wasn’t something that I had to dragged into or that I was looking at my watch doing.”
There were other rewards, too. “Seeing that thing put on stage in front of 200 people every night and realizing I had a small part in that was very gratifying,” the priest said.
Non-theater people who’ve read “A Jesuit Off-Broadway” have told Martin they were struck by the actors’ work ethic.
The priest reports that even those who get some work on TV struggle to pay the rent and when they can’t pay, they sleep on friends’ couches and floors.
For almost all of them, the job was clearly a vocation.
Martin recalled what one of the group told him about starting out in high school: “‘I loved acting so much it hurt,’ which is as good a definition of a vocation as I’ve ever heard.”