At least for its first half, you could compare playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at the Gift Theatre to those fiery courtroom trial sequences featured at the end of every “Law and Order, ” if the long-running series had had a “Biblical Victims Unit” season. As Guirgis sees it, Iscariot was either the victim of a hypocritical messiah incapable of unconditional love, or an unremorseful son of a bitch unworthy of redemption. As he showed with “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” the play that put him on the map and also took on themes of faith and forgiveness, Guirgis excels at presenting vibrant points of view via dazzling dialogue and memorable monologues. But as “In Arabia We’d All Be Kings” showed, his problem is that sometimes he fails to explore them satisfactorily. Guirgis’ dramaturgical virtues and pitfalls are on full display here but given the first act’s parade of witnesses (read: ideas and opinions)—from Judas’ mom to Mother Teresa to Sigmund Freud—the style fits the setup like a glove. And since most of us struggle every day with the emotional tug-of-war that is love and anger, hope and despair and forgiveness and vengeance, it’s enough for Guirgis to simply throw out the ideas in a visceral, accessible and highly entertaining format, which he does all throughout. But then divine inspiration strikes this playwright and the second act’s proceedings get really dark, really fucking fast. The conundrums become more pronounced, the stakes get higher and the play rises above puerile irreverence to new dramatic heights. It’s a brilliant theatrical coup realized by director Kevin Christopher Fox’s hugely likeable fifteen-strong cast who act the H-E-double hockey sticks out of the material and provide for some memorable turns and moments. Still, I’d be remiss not to single out actor Michael Patrick Thornton in the title role. Imbuing the play with much of its pathos, he’s the real thing here with a complex yet beautifully understated performance that achieves its own coup in winning, quite miraculously, our sympathy for the devil. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee, (773)283-7071. This production is now closed.