How can you go wrong with Jason Alexander as a sleazy lawyer, Patti LuPone as an avenging angel, and Santino Fontana as a conscience-stricken priest? The stellar cast of “Judgment Day” goes a long way towards absolving first-time playwright and long-time TV writer Rob Ulin for the sins of this glib comedy about redemption, which Barrington Stage Company is bringing back to stream for a week on Stellar, a year after its debut last summer. It also helps that it’s frequently funny.
Alexander portrays Sammy Campo, who is such a slimeball that we first meet him while he is cheerily making a deal on the phone with investors for an overseas factory that uses child labor (“They don’t actually get paid, but they get fed– assuming they meet their quota…”)
His secretary Della (Lorette Devine) interrupts. “You’ve been called before the Bar Association again. They’re citing ….” – and then she reads a long list, from “suborning perjury” to “public urination.”
Sammy shushes her. “Don’t wreck the moment. Do you know why this deal means so much to me?”
“Because of the money,” Della replies.
“Wrong! It is not because of the money. It’s because the money will now belong to me. Money that used to be other people’s will now become mine.”
Suddenly, Sammy slumps unconscious, and Sister Margaret (LuPone) appears, his chiding childhood teacher who has become an angel, and she’s positively giddy detailing all the torments to which he will be subjected in Hell.
But Sammy uses his lawyerly wiles to escape death – and once resuscitated, he becomes determined to avoid Hell in the future by pretending to be a good person, using the skills gained by a lifetime of dirty dealing.
That’s the central joke of “Judgment Day” – how awful Sammy is, and how he uses his awfulness to do good deeds, for selfish reasons, on behalf of a series of characters. These include his ex-wife Tracy and the son he never knew he had (Justina Machado and an impressively — not obnoxiously — precocious Julian Emile Lerner); Sammy had divorced Tracy ten years earlier for getting fat, not realizing she was actually pregnant. Much of the play is taken up with Sammy’s schemes on behalf of an elderly widow Edna (Carol Mansell) who is in danger of being evicted by a heartless insurance adjuster (Michael Mastro.).
This is where Fontana comes in. He portrays Father Michael, Edna’s priest. The playwright uses the character as a kind of morally straight man to play off of Sammy’s comically unethical shenanigans. But the character is also given a crisis of faith, which he discusses at some length with his monsignor (Michael McKean.) I would never complain about the presence of Fontana and McKean in any play, and they do earnest well, but it’s hard to understand what these scenes are doing in this laughfest. I suspect they are the playwright’s own efforts at redemption – to convince himself that “Judgment Day” has some intellectual heft.
Sifting underneath the jokes of this increasingly wacky play to extract any serious themes ( I don’t recommend that you try this at home), I located two: 1. The ends justify the means. 2. Per the lyrics from the Rodgers and Hammerstein song in “The King and I”
Make believe you’re brave
And the trick will take you far
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are
Substituting “good” for “brave.”
What appears to be the cynical underpinning, though, is softened by the nearly warmhearted (but at the same time cooly comic) scenes between Sammy and his son, and by a production that’s smoothly enough directed by Matthew Penn and well enough acted so that, even though it is technically a Zoom reading, it avoids that stigma.
on Stellar July 26 to August 1
Written by Rob Ulin
Directed by Matthew Penn
Cast: Jason Alexander (Sammy Campos), Patti LuPone (Sister Margaret), Santino Fontana (Father Michael), Michael McKean (Monsignor) Loretta Devine (Della), Josh Johnston (Doctor), Bianca LaVerne Jones (Principal), Julian Emile Lerner (Casper), Justina Machado (Tracy), Carol Mansell (Edna), Michael Mastro (Jackson) and Elizabeth Stanley (Chandra).
Running time: 83 minutes
Tickets: $11.(( If purchased before July 26, $4 off using code EARLY