Writer: Rob Ulin
Director: Matthew Penn
Reviewer: Jamie Rosler
Cynically funny and insightfully executed, Rob Ulin’s Judgment Day is a keen exploration of compassion, religious faith, and the malleability of human nature.
The play opens on Sammy Campo, a shameless, amoral lawyer played by Jason Alexander. He’s on the phone with an unnamed client, discussing the merits of a clothing factory abroad that depends on unpaid child labor. He is thrilled when the call ends and he can announce to his secretary Della (Loretta Devine) that a deal has been struck. Della, meanwhile, is reciting a long list of crimes and ethics violations for which Campo must face the judgment of the Bar Association.
Before he can fully celebrate his latest accomplishment, he appears to have a heart attack, and finds himself between life and death. He is addressed by an angel in the form of a nun that he recognizes from his past, played by Patti LuPone. When she lets slip that he is not quite yet dead, he threatens her with heavenly blackmail and is ultimately returned to his mortal self with the newfound goal of behaving like a good person in order to one day be allowed into Heaven.
We meet his estranged wife (Justina Machado), and a young priest experiencing a crisis of faith (Santino Fontana) and his cocksure monsignor (Michael McKean). Father Michael (Fontana) introduces Campo to an elderly parishioner who needs legal help to stand up against an insurance company that refuses to pay out her late husband’s life insurance policy because of a technicality.
This all sets up Campo’s journey away from selfishness and toward compassion. If he can act like someone who cares about other people, he can avoid eternal damnation in Hell. After his angelic encounter he comes to believe that it doesn’t matter what his motivation is as long as the actions are good, but is it possible to engage in compassionate, selfless acts without ultimately becoming a compassionate, selfless person? Ulin’s script presents a fascinating examination of the relationships between our actions and our emotional selves. Is faith a prerequisite for good deeds? Do the ends ever justify the means? Might religious prayer and carnal desire have more in common than we think?
This production, a virtual staged reading, employs its unusual setting to great success. Black and white sketches representing the various set locations provide seamless scene changes. Director Matthew Penn facilitates clear connections between the actors, almost erasing the distinction between their individual computer windows. Other than a slightly noticeable background whir during scenes with Father Michael, the technology never takes focus away from the story, the characters, or the philosophical inquiry.
To probe at complex, eternal questions, and to do so with wit, humor and delight, is an impressive and impressively entertaining feat.
Runs until 1 August 2021 | Photo Credit: Katie Rosin