The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
nytheatre.com review by Kelly McAllister
February 27, 2005
What is the nature of forgiveness? How do we reconcile ourselves with our actions? What is more important: to be forgiven by those we have transgressed against, or to forgive ourselves? These are just some of the big questions raised in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s stunning new play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Guirgis is one of the best playwrights getting produced these days, as this production makes clear. He has written an intense drama that is full of laughter. He has created characters that are memorable and believable—even if they are angels, Satan, or Jesus. He has written passionately and intelligently about one of the great betrayals of western culture.
The play takes place between Heaven and Hell, in a corner of Purgatory called Hope, in a courtroom presided over by a former Civil War judge who makes Judge Roy Bean look like a pussy cat. Defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham has taken up Judas’s case, and is asking for a hearing for the betrayer of the son of God. At first she is refused, but after enlisting the help of Santa Monica—who turns out to be the nag of Heaven, with a talent for profanity—a trial is granted. In the case of “God and the Kingdom of Heaven vs. Judas Iscariot,” the prosecution is represented by Yusef El-Fayoumy, a sycophantic shyster whose talents at first seem better suited for flattery than for the law. Witnesses are called in, ranging from Pontius Pilate to Sigmund Freud to Satan himself. Angels, apostles, and Jesus Himself give testimony. Evidence is produced, arguments made, and theories about motive presented. The play begins like another courtroom drama, albeit one in a rather fantastical setting, but slowly morphs into a meditation on the nature of forgiveness.
The cast is extremely strong—with many of the actors double- or triple-cast. Jeffrey De Munn is excellent as the Judge, and even better as Caiaphas the Elder—his testimony is compelling, smart, and just sad. Caiaphas attacks with justified ferocity the belief that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Craig “Mums” Grant’s St. Peter is also outstanding—a fisherman who met Jesus and never got to see his beloved fish again because he became a fisher of men.
Sam Rockwell, as Judas, is enigmatic, touching, and ultimately tragic. In a flashback, we see him meet Satan for the first time, right after he’s betrayed Jesus. This scene could have easily turned into a melodramatic bunch of goo—but as written and performed, it’s one of the more exciting moments in a play full of exciting moments. Rockwell’s Judas is a completely believable human being—complex, funny, and sad.
As Satan, Eric Bogosian steals every scene he is in. Bogosian exudes a natural charisma and intelligence that is perfectly suited for the prince of darkness. And he’s also very funny. Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Pontius Pilate with an immaculate blend of authority, pomposity, and intelligence. At the end of his testimony, he turns to defense attorney Cunningham and says “I live in Heaven; where do you live?” It is a simple line, but delivered with absolute conviction and authority—that one moment lets you know everything you need to know about Pilate and his relation to the proceedings. The play is full of moments like that. As Jesus of Nazareth, John Ortiz is equally stunning. His final scene with Judas is perfect. There isn’t a weak link in the cast.
Philip Seymour Hoffman directs the play with a perfect sense of when to bring out the more comical elements and when to let the sorrow of the situation fill the room. Characters enter from all over—from the traditional upstage left and right to the rafters high above. The action never lags, and I never found my mind wandering. Andromache Chalfant’s set is a perfect playground for the play, with a naturalistic courtroom on a traditional thrust stage, but with many platforms and entrances surrounding it for visitations by angels, saints, and so on. Mimi O’Donnell’s costumes are simple, but add just the right touches to each character, like Satan’s Gucci suit and Pilate’s golfing outfit—that’s right, I said golfing outfit.
I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed this show. I urge everyone reading this review to go and see it—you may end up, like Judas, full of regret if you don’t.