By Stephen Adly Guirgis; Directed by Estelle Parsons
Produced by the Actors Studio
Off Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 3.26.17
La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street
by Ken Kaissar on 3.14.17
Javier Molina and Jay Johnston in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
BOTTOM LINE: Estelle Parsons directs a 28-person showcase of the hilarious 2005 play.
Milestones for two major downtown-theatre institutions prompt this high-octane revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. This year, the Actors Studio collective turns 70, under the leadership of Ellen Burstyn, and La MaMa, one of New York’s most prominent laboratories of experimental theatre, turns 55. In honor of these anniversaries, representatives from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office were in attendance on opening night to present Ms. Burstyn with a proclamation that March 13 would forever be known as Actors Studio Day in New York City.
Under the direction of another legendary actress, Estelle Parsons, the Actors Studio puts forth a miminalist production of epic proportions for the momentous occasion. The original production, directed in 2005 by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, featured a cast of twelve who were extensively double-cast. This excellent production showcases twenty-eight outstanding performers with very little doubling.
Guirgis’s complicated play is topical and hilarious. It imagines a courtroom in purgatory where sinners must stand trial for their offenses to determine if admittance into heaven is possible. The defendant on hand is Judas Iscariot (Gabriel Furman) of New Testament fame—the Apostle responsible for selling out Jesus Christ to the Romans. However, the play takes place during the present day in a modern courtroom. Witnesses include Mother Theresa (Bob Adrian) and Sigmund Freud (Timothy Doyle) in addition to biblical characters such as Pontius Pilate (Leland Gantt) and Caiphus (Count Stovall). The characters use the contemporary American vernacular with enough F-bombs and MF-ers to make Chris Rock blush. It’s safe to say this play is probably not a great pick for anyone who insists that G-rated language be used exclusively when exploring the Bible.
Those interested in revisiting the betrayal of Jesus with an open mind, however, are in for a provocative evening of theatre that is at once hilariously irreverent and devoutly spiritual. The play clearly delivers a social message that is satirical, political, and moral, but also oddly theological. This is not the work of an atheist, but a deeply religious thinker who struggles with the contradictions of his tradition. Guirgis’s irreverence feels oddly motivated by a deep sense of piety.
The production presented at La MaMa’s historic Ellen Stewart Theatre feels very much like an actors’ showcase, with the emphasis placed largely on each performer’s chance to shine rather than on the momentum and cohesion of the storytelling. Parsons succeeds as an acting coach more than a director, coaxing inspiring performances from each ensemble member, with less emphasis on the overall statement of the piece. With a running time of about three hours, the production outstays its welcome, as actors’ showcases tend to do.
The good news is that this production features some breathtaking performances, including Furman in the title role, the powerful and terrifying Leland Gantt as Pilate, the irresistibly charming Javier Molina as Satan, Suzanne Di Donna as Fabiana Cunningham, a sharp and articulate urban defense attorney who “don’t take no shit from nobody,” and the dignified Count Stovall as Caiphus. Anyone looking to discover great downtown performers who deserve to be regulars in the off-Broadway theatre scene should not miss this production.
(The Last Days of Judas Iscariot plays at La Mama's Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, through March 26, 2017. The running time is three hours with an intermission. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 4. Tickets are $20 and are available at lamama.org.)
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Estelle Parsons. Set Design is by Peter Larkin. Sound Design is by Erich Bechtel. Music is by Yukio Tsuji. Costume Consultant is Court Watson. Lighting Consultant is Mike Riggs. Stage Manager is Ana Mari de Quesada.
The cast is Richarda Abrams, Bob Adrian, Michael Billingsley, Fig Chilcott, Stephen Dexter, Suzanne DiDonna, Lash Dooley, Timothy Doyle, Gabe Fazio, David Fraioli, Jason Furlani, Gabriel Furman, LeLand Gantt, Jose Ignacio Gomez, Daniel Grimaldi, Sashwat Gupta, Con Horgan, Liana Jackson, Jay Johnston, Burnadair Lipscomb-Hunt, Beth Manspeizer, Javier Molina, Marcus Naylor, Myla Pitt, Taylor Plas, JoAnna Rhinehart, Delissa M. Reynolds, and Count Stovall.