Category: Archive

On the Aisle: Apostle in the dock

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

His first two produced plays, “In Arabia We’d All Be Kings” and “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” modestly staged by the LAByrinth Theater Company, of which Guirgis is a longtime member, gained him a “downtown,” semi-underground reputation as a writer worth watching.
His third play, “Our Lady of 121st Street,” two years ago, broadened the base when, on the strength of excellent reviews, it transferred from LAByrinth’s old loft space to off-Broadway’s vast Union Square Theater.
Now, with LAByrinth temporarily in residence at the Public Theater, Guirgis’s new play, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” is his most ambitious, most challenging and, despite a tendency to sprawl, his most hauntingly successful effort.
Like most of his earlier work, the new Guirgis play has been directed, intelligently, and this time smashingly, by his longtime collaborator, the actor and LAByrinth co-artistic director Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The subject of Guirgis’s play is precisely what the title suggests, but he has approached it and developed it in a manner that few, if any, other Americans currently writing could even hope to duplicate.
The play begins with a single performer, the exquisite Deborah Rush, highlighted and alone, addressing the audience directly. Since her subject is grief and the unfairness of bereavement, if the title of the work were withheld, it would be an easy matter to brace oneself in preparation for a documentary on the death of children, an essay of Mahlerian sobriety.
Rush’s simple, heartfelt rendering of her opening speech leaves the audience wondering precisely how Guirgis is going to approach the task he has taken in.
“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” coming from Guirgis’s singular mind, is as serious in its intention as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s great film “Gospel According to St. Matthew,” and as penetratingly funny as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
It’s also as street-smart and as profane as anything David Mamet has written to date, and, if anything, sharper and more pungent in its capture and its perception of vulgar, unselfconscious urban argot.
The question underlying Guirgis’s play is simple. If God is all-forgiving, how can He allow His son’s betrayer, Judas Iscariot, to remain forever unforgiven?
In almost any other writer’s hands, the result of such an inquiry would very likely to be something as humorless, and, in the end, as ineffectual as Archibald MacLeish’s fleetingly successful, now forgotten 1958 effort, “J.B.,” which examined Job’s relationship with the Deity.
Who but Giurgis could work Satan, Mother Teresa, Caiaphas Elder, St. Matthew, Pontius Pilate, Jesus of Nazaret, Sigmund Freud, St. Peter, St. Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Simon the Zealot, Boaz the Assyrian, Saint Monica and Matthias of Galilee into a single theatrical fabric and come up with what, in the end, emerges as a deeply moving, endlessly surprising comedy?
The finals scene, involving Sam Rockwell’s Judas, John Ortiz’s Jesus, and Kohn Sudduth, a veteran of “Take Me Out,” now playing a kind of regional American everyman named Butch Moneywell in a quietly remarkable performance, packs a real wallop and would be difficult to dismiss from memory, even coming as late in the play as it does.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, emerging more and more clearly as one of the current theater’s finest and most promising directors, has put together a truly astonishing company.
The most audience-pleasing, the most galvanic and certainly the funniest performance is Eric Bogosian’s Satan, lounging on the witness stand in an expensive suit and resplendent with fatigue and what appears to be a serious hangover.
It’s been said more than once that when writers address themselves to matters involving heaven and hell, the Devil always gets the best lines.
Jeffrey De Munn, too long off a New York stage, is memorably irascible as the nameless trial judge, then doubles effectively as Caiaphas the Elder. Stephen McKinley Henderson’s aggressive Pontius Pilate rings the bell, as does Liza Colon-Zayay realistically self-justifying Mother Teresa.
The trial lawyers, Callie Thorne as prosecutor Fabiana-Aziza Cunningham, and Yul Vazquez as the defense attorney, Yusef El-Fayoumy, probably suffer most from the script’s undeniable windiness, forced as they are by circumstances to make the same or similar points at least a few times too frequently.
Rockwell’s Judas is a study in near-catatonic containment, as effective in silence as in the few moments in which this excellent actor is allowed to break free.
Hoffman’s LAByrinth co-artistic director, John Ortiz, as Jesus of Nazareth, is onstage for a relatively few minutes, but, as always, he is unforgettable.
There will be those who are put off by the discursiveness of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” and perhaps even a few people who react negatively to the script’s lack of conventional reverence. It would be sad if audiences miss the rare value of Stephen Adly Guirgis, one of the American theater’s genuine treasures.

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