Judas (Steven Carrieri) goes on trial in the very funny play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
Filled with profane and obscene language, and people from a mix of centuries, the courtroom in purgatory resembles a back alley junkyard, with graffiti on metal shutters and garbage kicked to the corners. Mismatched furniture includes a bar stool for the defense attorney’s chair and some kind of car or airplane seat for the witness stand. One after another, witnesses take the stand, similar to a line-up of stand-up comedians. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s word of the Gospel tells a familiar story but in a new way, with a twist of gritty street language and 21st century one-liners.
Erica Lauren McLaughlin as Saint Monica
St. Monica (Erica Lauren McLaughlin) says, “Judas, how much you pay for that haircut? Thirty pieces of silver? Yo, Judas, why you so ‘hung’ up? C’mon, let’s ‘hang’ out. C’mon, b*tch, go out on a limb! Wanna go to the Olive Garden restaurant? Whaddya say you and me go down to the bar and betray some mothahf*ckahs! I know you like betraying! How ‘bout some supper, mothaf*ckah. C’mon, one last supper, whadday say?”.
Guirgis’s gift for creating comedy through puns and ridiculous scenarios sparkles. In the court of purgatory, Satan, who also goes by “Lou”, (Stephen Alan Wilson) expresses annoyances at constantly being called as a witness: “I’m not some wind-up doll to be summoned and dismissed like a f*ckin’ toy!” Satan also irritably complains that God has been poaching condemned souls from hell. He recognized some of them, now working as court security, hanging out by the vending machines in purgatory.
Eliud Kauffman as Yusef El-Fayoumy
Several talented actors artfully deliver Guirgis’s witty and acerbic lines. In addition to Satan, a macho, sexist Pontius Pilate (Omar Bustamante), and a flattering, sycophantic prosecutor, Yusef El-Faymouy (Eliud Kauffman), give hilarious performances with natural comedic timing and flair.
However, the more than three-hour production is too long. Nineteen actors, playing 27 roles, are a bit excessive. Witnesses, including Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, Peter, Matthew, Simon, Mary Magdalene and Judas’s mother, Henrietta Iscariot, have funny lines. Yet some scenes are superfluous to the story. It almost seems as if Guirgis just could not bear to eliminate some of the characters and dialogue. The production at times resembles Comedy Central interspersed with Saturday Night Live sketches, but with no option to change the channel.
Judas’s defense attorney, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Adyana de la Torre), is part Irish and part Romanian gypsy. She argues Judas must be forgiven and allowed entrance into heaven. The prosecutor, El-Fayoumy, an Egyptian, argues that Judas having committed the one unforgivable sin of despair betrayed the Son of God. Both of Guirgis’s parents have passed away. His mother was an Irish American, who met his father, an Egyptian while vacationing in Cairo. (See David Colman’s June 10, 2011, The New York Times article, “Crosses That Bear the Past”.) Guirgis’s play Motherf*cker with the Hat received a 2011 Tony Award nomination for best play. This increased name recognition for this revival of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which originally premiered in 2005 at the Public Theatre.
The play takes on the large, religious and philosophical questions including the absence or presence of God, the morality of God, justice, remorse and forgiveness.
In cross-examining Satan, Cunningham challenges the inconsistencies in the Bible. She asks if God loves Judas but Judas languishes in damnation, does that mean God’s love is conditional, thus false and unworthy? She asks, if human despair is so powerful so as to render God powerless over it, then is God not all-powerful? If the Book of Matthew says, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit”, and God created Satan, can Satan be all evil?
The play provides interesting points to contemplate, packed with reinterpretations of Judeo-Christian traditions. However, outsized by its efforts in asking too many big questions, the play loses its focus. Guirgis has no shortage of creative ideas, but his play could have a stronger impact, if he narrowed and organized his thoughts and questions in a more disciplined way.
Despite graphic language, the play reaffirms religious ideals. Judas is not only Judas but all of humanity, as all people are flawed and capable of betrayal in some form or another, especially in upholding our ideals, in their perfection. Judas speaks to anyone who has ever felt an absence of God or abandoned by God.
Jesus (Alexandra Turshen), a woman dressed in a white shirt and white jeans, remains in the courtroom throughout the trial. Jesus says that she is in Fallujah, in Darfur, and panhandling in New York City for change to get high. She is walking through the Rose Garden with George Bush and helping Donald Rumsfeld get a good night’s sleep. She was in the cave with Osama and on the plane with Mohammed Atta. “And what I need you to believe is that if you hate who I love that you do not know me at all. And make no mistake, ‘Who I Love’ is every last one. I am every last one. People ask of me: Where are you? Where are you? Verily I ask of you to ask yourself: Where are you? Where are you, Judas?”.
Guirgis forces the audience to ask where are they? Have you felt the despair in an absence of God? Or does this mean it is you who have left God (in whatever form may be your belief in divine spirituality)? If hell is defined as an absence of God, Guirgis reasserts a very traditional idea of free will in belief for determination of fate.
Even with its flaws of overambition, the play offers sharp jokes, and a mentally engaging opportunity to consider the world in different ways. An evening watching, for example, Two Broke Girls, Two and a Half Men and Mike & Malloy on TV instead, is a dull, bad joke by comparison.
Brendan Vickery (Matthias), Julie Szabo (Henrietta Iscariot), Bud Stafford (Judge Littlefield), Eliud Kauffman (Yusef El-Fayoumy) and Steven Carrieri (Judas Iscariot)
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is playing at T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, 151 W. 26th Street, New York, NY, through April 8, 2012. Tickets are $20, www.tschreiber.org or (866) 811-4111.