What if Judas were made to stand trial for his betrayal of Jesus? Would humankind be able to forgive him? Would God? Such heady questions are addressed in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2005 play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
The author, known mainly for his gritty, literate New York-centric pieces, sets Last Days in a courtroom in Purgatory but brings his familiar streetwise characters along for the ride. And in keeping with his considerable skill at breathing humanity into even the most marginalized of outsiders, Guirgis asks us not to be too quick to condemn the fallen apostle.
As the play opens, Judas (Robert Walters) sits comatose on a bench, his neck still bearing the marks from the rope with which he’d hanged himself from the olive tree. His defense attorney, Fabiana Cunningham (Sarah Ruth Ryan), pleads with the cantankerous Judge Littlefield (Robert Falchi) to hear his case, offering up a writ signed by God Himself. After languishing for millennia, it’s time for Judas to receive his final judgment.
Among the characters providing testimony are Judas’ mother, Henrietta (Dee Smith), still mourning the death of her son; smack-talking Saint Monica (Faith Imafidon), who came down from her saintly perch to check out for herself the depth of the defendant’s remorse; Sigmund Freud (Alex Walters), who considers all suicide victims to be mentally ill; and even the Dark Prince himself (Marc Erickson), whose evasiveness drives even the businesslike Cunningham over the edge.
Here, Judas serves as a stand-in for all of mankind facing God’s judgment. It sounds like a heavy evening of theater, but Guirgis adds much welcome comedy and spins familiar tropes to keep things going in surprising directions. He also displays an impressively encyclopedic knowledge of theology and biblical history.
This production earns high marks for professionalism. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Ericson’s Satan and Imafidon’s Saint Monica providing comic highlights. Walters, as Judas, spends most of his time onstage in silence but delivers on his big dramatic scene, a surprisingly touching second-act reunion with Jesus (a memorable Cooper Daniels). Robert Paterno’s fawning prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy is over-the-top funny; Keedar Whittle’s gangster take on Pontius Pilate is terrific; and Falchi is appropriately blustery as the Civil War-era judge. Only Ryan seems somewhat miscast here. Her performance is fine, but the character cries out for a little more fire.
Director Josh T. Ryan, a co-founder of Zombie Joe’s Underground, promised a leaner, grittier version here. It’s certainly leaner – earlier productions had clocked in at more than three and a half hours. This one positively races along at two and a half (including intermission). Annie Terazzo’s set designs evoke a graffiti-tagged subway tunnel, which is not inappropriate for the subject matter. On the downside, the music cues are clunky and the lighting is erratic. Whether those problems were the result of opening weekend hiccups or not, they don’t fatally harm the production.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. through August 24 at the Hudson Backstage, 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles 90038. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 960-7738.