By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Rob Ulin must be a very happy man. He obviously has been saying his prayers and living a proper and pious life. That must be the case because his play Judgment Day recently enjoyed a filmed reading as a benefit for the Barrington Stage Company recently and three of its central roles were played by Tony Award winners.
Jason Alexander (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway) portrayed the central character of Samuel Campo, a lawyer so slimy and underhanded that snakes turn away in disgust. In an opening telephone conversation he convinces his client, a manufacturer of casual wear, to send him his fee for setting up his latest scheme.
“No, it’s not child labor,” he convinces the caller. “It’s like a crafts program that happens to produce casual wear.”
He points out that it’s out of the jurisdiction of federal authorities because the operation is on foreign soil and, because he set it up as a 501(c) 3 corporation, the client is also entitled to a big tax deduction.
Over the course of one reviling minute, Campo comments on how the “little tykes” are paid with food, a “nutritious” gray paste that doctors signed off on, and how he and his henchmen have trained them to recite a phrase praising America “for sharing her great bounty” with them phonetically. Of course, none of them can speak English, no doubt because none of them can read.
Ulin’s character no sooner puts down the phone when he suffers a near death experience as his heart – what little there is left of it – gives out and in an out-of-body state holds a conversation with the second of the Tony Award winners, Patti LuPone (Evita, Gypsy), as an angel, whom he recognizes as a former grade school teacher, Sister Margaret. She is delicious in the role with an almost demonic laugh.
Looking to find a loophole in his predicament in which he is to be consigned to the eternal torments of hell, Campo tries to bargain with the angel. Suppose I repent and have a desire to do good in my heart, he asks.
LuPone in the role of the angel responds: “Human beings are judged solely by their deeds.”
It doesn’t matter what the intent is, she informs him, expecting him to accept his fate and shuffle off his mortal coil to an agonizing end.
But then the unexpected happens. Campo recovers. He resolves to begin doing good deeds, not because he finds worth in them, but because it is only the deeds that will unseal his fate.
It is in this hollow attempt to redeem himself that he confesses to the third Tony Award winner, Santino Fontana (Tootsie), who plays Father Michael. The priest is appalled at his lack of repentance, but petitions him to perform an act of charity by using his legal services to save a widow, Edna Fillmore (Carol Mansell), from foreclosure. Her insurance company has refused to pay on her claim on her husband’s life insurance due to a single missed payment during his final months.
At first, Campo attempts to make amends to Tracy, the wife he deserted (Julia Machado), by trying to buy her off with a check. He had confessed to Father Michael that he left her because she was gaining weight, but to his shock he learns that the extra pounds she had taken on were due to her pregnancy with Casper (Julian Emile Lerner), their now 9-year-old son.
Suddenly, Campo knows his duty is to become a father to this extremely troubled child, a kid who has abandonment issues and whose school is threatening to expel him. Tracy keeps her ex away for a while, but he is determined to be a part of his child’s future, even though he hates kids and this kid has no interest in his becoming closer.
Directed by Matthew Penn, Alexander is terrific in Judgment Day as a sleazy lawyer doing whatever good deed he can in order to make it appear he is a man with high morals and a good heart. Ulin’s play brings into mind a probing question needing to be propounded: Are good deeds done without moral intent tantamount to bad deeds? Ultimately, it raises another equally disturbing question: Can a bad deed somehow be considered acceptable if its accomplished goal is a good result?
“When you call someone moral or immoral, you think you’re saying something about their character,” Campo explains to his wife Tracy, who believes she is seeing a real change in him. “Character has nothing to do with it. If someone is immoral, that just means he doesn’t understand how the system works. A moral person is just a son of a bitch who understands his incentives.”
While taking his case to his monsignor (Michael McKean), Fontana’s conflicted character of Father Michael becomes the wayward victim of Campo’s lack of morality. Ultimately, he begins to question his own faith and realizes the futility of adhering to the system that has been put into place and maintained by the Church.
He knows that Campo is doing his behest and attempting to save the widow by employing evil tactics against an intractable and morally corrupt insurance adjustor (Michael Mastro). But, if Father Michael makes confession to the monsignor, he will have to repent in order to be given absolution and accept the sacrament of the Church. So, in order to save himself and keep from sinning, the priest realizes his efforts to save Mrs. Fillmore would be for naught.
“Ends don’t justify (the) means,” the monsignor reminds him.
“If a person withholds his confession and risks his soul to protect one of the vulnerable, how could God look askance at that?” he asks.
Ultimately, the priest and the lawyer are thrown together in a way neither could have imagined and Campo’s selfishly-motivated altruism makes him seem like a much more faithful husband and a devoted father – neither of which are his real intentions.
Tony Award nominee Elizabeth Stanley (Jagged Little Pill) makes a few appearances as Chandra, a female operative Campo hires in order to get the goods on the insurance adjustor and videotape him in a compromising position or two. The priest is appalled, of course, but the lawyer presses on in his attempt to earn “heaven points.”
“As a man of the cloth, I shouldn’t be associating with you,” the priest objects. “Plus the monsignor pointed out that associating with you is bad for my spiritual life.”
Ulin’s script is accompanied by a simple, yet effective soundtrack of keyboard-generated music by Jordan Plotner with additional vocals by Lindsey Ferguson. Thank you, Rob Ulin, for saying your prayers. They resulted in a fun romp around some serious and consequential philosophical questions. And thank God for that.
Judgment Day (83 minutes) was streamed from July 26 through August 1 as a fundraiser for The Barrington Stage Company , which is still accepting donations on its behalf.