Legal battles are all too common these days for the Roman Catholic Church, but Stephen Adly Guirgis' courtroom drama confronts religion in an unexpected way. Can the man who betrayed Christ be redeemed by a feisty defense attorney who won't take no for an answer? Folks, we may have finally found a case to silence Judge Judy.
"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," a sprawlingly ambitious play by the talented author of "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" and "Our Lady of 121st Street," combines "Law & Order" dramatics with serious (and sometimes seriously windy) theological ruminations.
The result, by turns riveting and enervating, wears its flaws on its priestly sleeve. But the Black Dahlia Theatre production, directed by Matt Shakman at the atmospheric Lutheran Church of the Master, impresses with its relentless energy and holy intensity.
Set in downtown purgatory, the playful drama sends out a novice angel to explain the way litigation has replaced contemplation as the spiritual mode of our age. Everyone in this part of town known as Hope is trying to get to heaven, and apparently the only way to go is through overworked and overwrought Judge Littlefield (Robert Machray).
Denying a hearing for Benedict Arnold with an extra loud pound of his gavel, he can hardly believe his ears when he hears the words "God and the Kingdom of Heaven vs. Judas Iscariot." Determined to throw the case out, he's eventually forced to hold a trial after Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Susan Pourfar), the pushy defense counsel, offers him a writ signed by God himself.
Judas (Daniel Jay Shore), catatonically depressed though still looking like he's held onto his gym membership, seems like he couldn't care less where he winds up. He's wrestling not just with guilt but also with the disappointment that his all-powerful friend Jesus (Joshua Wolf Coleman) had the power to save Peter, Thomas and Paul but didn't lift a finger to rescue him, his best buddy, from a villainous fate.
Cunningham, whose spotty past spurs her on to find grace for Judas, calls to the stand a luminous roster of saints, secular heroes and sinners, including Mother Teresa (Deborah Puette), Sigmund Freud (Rick D. Wasserman) and even Satan (a slyly menacing David Clennon in black leather pants) to shed light on the defendant's character.
The devil, as his due, gets all the most diabolically memorable lines, but it's Sister Glenna (Suzanne Ford), a nun friend of Mother Teresa's, whose words resonate most deeply with the despondency of Judas.
She defines "despair" as "the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God. . . . "
The significance of her statement, which she's asked to repeat for emphasis, is somewhat diminished by the parade of other less-straightforward witnesses, including Pontius Pilate (Terrell Tilford)and Caiaphas the Elder (Machray, stepping down momentarily from the role of the judge), who hold forth as if they have an eternity to kill. And as Cunningham and prosecuting attorney El-Fayoumy (Jay Harik) spar over the interminable testimony, the proceedings begin to seem like C-SPAN in purgatory.
Guirgis, who's also an actor, is exceedingly generous to his performers, writing street-slangy speeches that allow them to rip. But this bounteousness comes at the expense of his play's overall structure.
Courtroom dramas are supposed to tire you out only in real life, not the theater, and neither the plodding theological debate nor the weak emotional connection to a virtually comatose Judas helps matters.
Which is all the more reason to applaud Shakman and his company of actors (many taking on multiple roles) for sustaining such a jocular mood. Fully exploiting the church setting and Guirgis' bouncily anachronistic comedy, the production ushers us into a theatrical space that makes even the boring catechism bits seem almost forgivable.
'The Last Days of Judas Iscariot'
Where: Lutheran Church of the Master, 10931 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Aug. 26
Contact: (866) 468-3399
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes