While New York slowly re-awakens from its pandemic slumber, virtual productions continue to fill the gaps for those looking to be entertained in the safety of their homes. One such offering to arise during the scorching heat of summer is Judgment Day, a comedy which sports an excellent cast (sprinkled with some Tony/Grammy Award winners) and is being re-aired through August 1st.
Judgment Day centers around a morality-free attorney named Sammy (Jason Alexander) who has escaped the boiling oceans of diarrhea in Hell (and other dire punishments) on a technicality. Sammy is miraculously returned to life after a massive heart attack, and the angel of vindictive nun Sister Margaret (Patti LuPone) warns him that he will not escape Hell the next time if he does not clean up his act during the remainder of his life on earth.
Selfish and conniving to the core, Sammy is hugely relieved when Sister Margaret informs him that humans are judged solely according to their deeds and not by what’s in their hearts. Sammy seeks out a priest, one Father Michael (Santino Fontana), looking for advice on how to do just enough good to ensure his heavenly reward, and not a stitch more. Sammy’s methods for achieving good come in hilarious conflict with Father Michael’s intentions, insisting that “ends do not justify means” as they work together to save an elderly widow from eviction.
Also on Sammy’s to-do list is making amends to his wife Tracy (Justina Machado), who he walked out on ten years earlier because she was getting fat, “fat” which eventually took the form of their surly pre-teen son Casper (Julian Emile Lerner) who Sammy meets for the first time.
Judgment Day cleverly posits some genuine thoughts about faith while delivering its many laughs. Sammy’s newfound belief in God is entirely inspired by his unshakeable insistence at having seen an angel. When Father Michael suggests to him this angelic appearance might merely have been a hallucination, Sammy gets angry and defensive, scoffing at the notion that faith must be nurtured without any hard evidence of God’s existence.
Later, when Father Michael confesses to his monsignor (Michael McKean) that he, Father Michael, wants to do good but doesn’t believe in God, he can’t reconcile himself with the monsignor’s response that “if you do good works but you don’t have faith, you’re not righteous, you’re just nice”; faith, the monsignor insists, is required for salvation. The monsignor tells Father Michael that “there’s nothing rational about atheism,” and that it just makes sense to believe, citing 17th century philosopher and mathematician Pascal:
If God exists and you spend your life not believing in him, the price you pay at death is an eternity of torment. But if God doesn’t exist….and you spend your life believing in a God who isn’t there, at the end of life you’ve lost very little. And you’ve probably been much easier to get along with.
As Sammy, Alexander’s exquisite comic genius delivers like gangbusters, a delivery which gets even richer in some subtler moments when Sammy surprises himself with some honest emotions. Father Michael is superbly acted by Fontana, who is the perfect straight man to Alexander’s dastardly Sammy.
Machado gives a fiery, honest and earnest portrayal as Tracy, the abandoned wife, standing up to Sammy and shining in her own light. Lerner is spot on as the moody Casper; together, he and Alexander strike an excellent rapport as father and son. LuPone deliciously cackles her way through the modestly sized part of Sister Margaret, making every moment count. Loretta Devine also provides some gratifying deadpan moments as Sammy’s secretary Della.
Excellent direction by Matthew Penn is evident throughout the production, from the smallest, clever prop handling between the actors in their different windows to the actively engaged listening the performers maintained while never facing one another.
Patricia McCorkle’s casting provides a great set of supporting actors; placing funny man Michael McKean in the role of the monsignor is an inspired choice and serves to lighten the weight of the religious philosophy being offered up in the play. McKean could have improved his eye contact with the camera, working harder at disguising the fact that he was reading his lines from a script, but he otherwise provides a gentle, calming presence for Father Michael.
In the absence of sets, illustrations by Melanie Cummings transition the scenes nicely, to the tune of whimsical music by Jordan Plotner.
As a piece of writing, Ulin’s play is both extremely funny and super smart, interweaving light humor with rich character development and deep thought provocation, making great impact without being didactic. There is one short exchange, however, which seems pointedly expendable. When the angel Sister Margaret revisits Sammy, she tells him “he’s changing” as a result of doing his good deeds in spite of his selfish motives. It’s overkill for the character to say this out loud since Sammy’s own revelations ultimately demonstrate this fact and the audience gets this message perfectly without being told. The rest of the scene itself does hold value, however, if only to give Sammy a moment to question the angel’s true existence and to not get a direct answer.
Judgment Day is not only worth a watch, but also a re-watch, and is a great read. It offers much light-hearted humor with food for thought.
Judgment Day (steaming July 26 – August 1, 2021)
Barrington Stage Company (BSC)
To view the trailer, visit https://vimeo.com/449100700
For tickets, visit https://www.stellartickets.com/o/barrington-stage/events/judgment-day
Running time: one hour and 23 minutes