The T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre always puts out a quality product. If it were a car company rather than a theatre, I would venture to say it manufactured luxury SUVs: large vehicles capable of carrying many passengers to their destination in style. Last season’s NY Innovative Theatre Award-winning Balm in Gilead was indicative of the state of things on the seventh floor at 151 W. 26th St. – plays featuring big casts with big hearts and big talent. The trick for Terry Schreiber, artistic director of the theatre and the conservatory program, is to find a worthy play that fits this particular model. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot isn’t it.
Stephen Adley Guirgis’ play, which made its debut at LAByrinth in 2005, is a study in physical and intellectual exercise rather than the spiritual. Both audience and actors are exhausted by the end of the three-plus hours of celestial courtroom drama. And for what? Lacking catharsis (to go B.C.), the moments of true emotional impact occur only when the cast and director crack through the layers of Guirgis’ braggadocio. Last Days is a parade of cartoon religious superstars in lieu of a real exploration of what betrayal and forgiveness mean.
Even the title, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, is a bit of a misnomer. Judas’ mother (Julie Szabo), his childhood, his three years with Jesus – these are the things on trial during Guirgis’ fantastical drama set in Purgatory. At the end of the evening, motivations, consequences, the Passion of Christ all remain a bit cloudy. Just like the morning after a night drinking with the charming Satan. This production’s Satan (Stephen Alan Wilson) adheres to the Walt Disney theory that villains are indeed the most interesting characters.
The two attorneys in front of the bench (Judge: Bud Stafford, Baliff: Michael J. Connolly) are on a day pass from Hell for no apparent reason other than all attorneys belong in Hell. These two characters are long on names, short on dimensional personality. The prosecutor, Yusef El-Fayoumy (Eliud Kauffman, above) is a smarmy, Mother Teresa-loving Christian Egyptian, not as interesting as it sounds despite the white-suited efforts of the actor, channeling Steve Martin in Leap of Faith perhaps. The defense, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Adyana de la Torre), is a strident, leathered-up character just short of a dominatrix, angry at this world and the next, a woman who is just one note: annoying. If I had the energy, I would throw the gauntlet down at the playwright’s general depiction of women, but I’m saving my wrath for Rush Limbaugh.
The performances in Last Days are generally game – inserting energy where dimensions of character are lacking. Some standouts are George Mouriadis as the quietly genial Doubting Thomas, looking a bit like a modern subway beggar, and Omar Bustamante as a Pontius Pilate who is more than a match for an army of lawyers from Hell or Heaven. Mr. Bustamante is clearly a fan of the Clay Davis character on The Wire, and for that I do not fault him: “sheeeet.” The actor owned the stage during his scene: none of the wishy-washy hands-cleansing of the traditional Pontius Pilate, and probably more factually accurate in characterization for a man who was a Roman leader for as long as he was.
Some characters were amusing, like the foul-mouthed St. Monica (Erica Lauren McLaughlin, above), but ultimately inconsequential, such as Sigmund Freud (Alex Crow Reimers) and Mother Teresa (Julia Kelly). Such a roster of witnesses for the playwright’s prosecution – not of Judas, but the Catholic Church – brings to mind St. Monica’s son’s plea: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” No, not that one. “Hear the other side.”
The other side is not heard here because Judas (Steven Carrieri, above right, with Julie Szabo, center, and Brennan Vickery, left) refuses to testify in his own behalf. What we are left with is a man who is given a bad rap in history and a bad role here in this play with little to do but be catatonic or drunk.
The salvation of the evening, with all puns intended, is the casting of Alexandra Turshen as Jesus. The actress moved with a dancer’s grace and brought tenderness to the penultimate scene – Jesus’ attempt to forgive Judas. She manifested what might have been in this play had some of the hyperbole and the intellectual elitism been stripped away, and we were left with the real question of the night and of the last two millennia: Did Jesus really need Judas to betray him (her) in order to bring about the cruxification, and what kind of free will is that for poor Judas? But those sorts of big questions are answered uptown – at Jesus Christ Superstar.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, with the usual excellent set and lighting (Chris Minard, Diem Hoang, Morgan Edwards – was this really a rugby team’s locker room?) runs through April 8.
Photo credit: Daniel Terna