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JUDGMENT DAY

JUDGMENT DAY

                       by Marc Miller

Can you smell the theater in the air? Summer shows are happening here and there, fresh marquees are going up on Broadway, and the live streamed and taped shows that curbed our dramatic appetites during the pandemic are, letís hope, receding, to be replaced by the real thing. But donít turn off the computer just yet. While itís around, youíll want to catch Judgment Day.

Itís an encore performance of Barrington Stage Companyís online hit from last August, Rob Ulinís very funny, irreverent-yet-reverent meditation on the afterlife, the nature of good and evil, and the motivations behind moral reform. If that sounds like a lot to digest in an 83-minute comedy, be assured, Judgment Day entertains throughout, zips by, and even leaves you a little to think about. Technically itís a modest little thing, with no set to speak of, more-or-less-mufti costumes, and pencil-sketch drawings to establish locales. But it makes up for minimal production values with a powerhouse cast, one that savors Ulinís zingy one-liners and knows how to deliver them.

The protagonist, one Sammy Campo, is a juicy role that fits Jason Alexander like the tailored three-piece suit this guy would undoubtedly wear. Sammy might be George Constanza on a higher professional plane: A successful attorney, heís shallow, opportunistic, and morally bankrupt in ways even George would never think of. A merry reprobate who revels in fast money, easy sex, and humiliating his adversaries, heís impossible to rattleóuntil a near-death experience. On the operating table, he momentarily enters (or does he?) the afterlife, where heís greeted by Sister Margaret (Patti LuPone), his terrifying third grade Catholic school teacher. Thatís right, Patti LuPone as an otherworldly nun. She hasnít that much to do except shriek a maniacal laugh, but she does that magnificently.

Sammy, the sister assures him, is headed for hell, where ďyour naked body shall be covered in flaming worms,Ē and ďyou will float in an ocean of boiling diarrhea.Ē Human fate, she adds, is determined by human deeds, not impulses or intentions. So, when Sammy inexplicably recovers, he resolves to do better, to help humanity and redress those heís wronged. Itís not redemption, exactly; itís a calculated strategy to avoid those flaming worms. 

And plenty of people could use his help, whether that help is sincere or not. For a little play, Judgment Day has a big cast, mostly characters Sammy has sinned against. To begin with, thereís Tracy (Justina Machado), his estranged wife, a worn-out waitress he walked out on ten years ago. She didnít bother to tell him they had a son (Julian Emile Lerner), a nine-year-old terror whose laziness, disrespect, and cynicism are the legacy of the dad he never knew. Sammy apologizes to Tracy, after a fashion: ďIíve realized I treated you wrong, and itís bad to be wrong, and I want to make amends, and blah blah blah blah blah.Ē

Thereís also Sammyís put-upon secretary (Loretta Devine), who cleans up after his messes with a shrug and a muttered-under-her-breath insult. And, as Sammy seeks guidance in godliness, thereís the priest from the rundown local parish (Santino FontanaóI mean, Santino Fontana!), whoís undergoing some spiritual doubts of his own, unaided by the stern, rule-driven local monsignor (Michael McKean). The crisis of the moment in the fatherís parish involves a sweet widow lady (Carol Mansell) about to lose her home after failing to make an insurance payment, sending Sammy, desperate to do a good deed, on the trail of an insurance agent as morally bereft as he is (Michael Mastro); he sets him up with a hooker (Elizabeth Stanley), with titillating results.

Sitcom situations, maybe, but Ulin has a lot on his mind. Is there an afterlife, or might it be the imagined musings of a soul at deathís door? Is virtue measured by what we do, or what we think? If good stems from evil or vice versa, whoís to blame/credit? Plus, thereís the rather touching throughline where Sammy, devious motivations or not, becomes a nurturing dad, and his kid becomes a better kid. The unforeseen love between father and son causes Alexander to get teary at one late moment, and so did I.

Fontana, in an unshowy role, lends some fire to this thoughtful, questioning cleric, agonizing over issues he thought his job description had resolved; McKeanís monsignor has fewer chances to make an impression, but he makes the most of what heís got. Machadoís wary, unlucky Tracy is just right, and so is Mastroís nightmare of a screw-everybody claims adjuster. But the real find is Lerner, an exuberant young man with timing, a versatile delivery, and genuine malice. Heís a great bad seed of a kid, and he reforms most convincingly.

Thereís not much to the video presentation, but under Matthew Pennís direction, the laughs are maximized, and you may end up feeling something, too. Split-second cross-platform momentsóone character slapping another, the handing of a bouquet, Alexander and LuPone rolling around coitally on the floor (donít ask)óare expertly timed and handled. Judgment Day is a winning hour and a half (stick around for the post-performance moments), and itís hard to imagine a better online presentation of the material. But letís hope that, post-pandemic, Barrington doesnít forget this one; we want to see it on a stage.

Judgment Day

Regional play

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes
Available July 26-August 1 at https://www.stellartickets.com/o/barrington-stage/events/judgment-day