Review: The Divine Comedy of "Judgment Day"

Judgment Day

Written by Rob Ulin

Directed by Matthew Penn

Presented via Stellar to benefit Barrington Stage Company

July 26-August 1, 2021

Jason Alexander and Patti LuPone. Image courtesy Kampfire PR
Rob Ulin's two-act play Judgment Day introduces us to successful lawyer Sammy Campo (Jason Alexander) as he closes what sounds like a pretty shady deal—if you find things like child labor questionable. But Sammy has not gotten where he is by being particularly ethical. When, however, he comes away from a briefly fatal medical episode convinced that where he is headed in (or, really, after) the end hangs in the balance, he seeks to tip the scales in his favor, and enlists doubting priest Father Michael (Santino Fontana) along the way. Receiving an encore presentation to benefit the Massachusetts-based Barrington Stage Company, the virtual reading of this modern-day comedy of morals itself benefits from a high-powered cast and a willingness to take a few unexpected turns.
Santino Fontana. Image courtesy Kampfire PR
The basic dramatic plot of a man getting a wake-up call from a heavenly visitor in the face of death has been around at least since Everyman in the late fifteenth century, but the fun is in seeing how and how much the existential odd couple of Sammy and Father Michael will move towards one another from contrasting points on the moral spectrum. This is not to say that the play does not also raise interesting questions. While how far good ends justify dubious means is not an uncommon consideration—here, the characters who refuse to bend the rules seem to lack empathy and ultimately to be the less moral ones—the intriguing line of inquiry that the play pursues regarding whether the motivations behind good deeds matter is less often explored (outside of theological debates about faith versus works, anyway). Does it matter if someone behaves well towards others and improves the world for the 'wrong' internal reasons? (The Utilitarian in us would say no.) Is there actually any meaningful separation, especially if one removes religious doctrine from the equation, between behavior and reality/truth, particularly with repetition over time?
Justina Machado. Image courtesy Kampfire PR
Whatever the play's ethical explorations, it delivers them within a comedy whose vein of misanthropic jokes ultimately resolve into something more humanist. Whether he is rattling off a list of the kind of people whom he would consider miserable enough to bother helping or explaining why Catholicism is blackmail by another name, Alexander's dynamic comedic energy anchors a hilarious cast, from Patti LuPone's vindictive (and maybe hallucinated) angel to Michael McKean's deadpan monsignor, Father Michael's 'boss.' Fontana as said Father and Justina Machado as Tracy, the wife whom Sammy walked out on a decade ago for shallow reasons, both make for, in different ways, excellent foils, comedic and otherwise, for Alexander's cheerfully amoral Sammy. It is only too bad, given the narrated stage directions, that Alexander and LuPone had to remain confined to their individual virtual boxes for the second meeting between Sammy and the angel. The behind-the-scenes clips sprinkled into the closing credits are a fun conclusion to an entertaining show presented in support of a good cause.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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