“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is a splendid storm of a play, a full three hours examining the proper fate of the man who betrayed Jesus and, by conspicuous extension, the fate of unforgiven souls everywhere. It’s a holy courtroom drama and a brazenly irreverent farce, set in Purgatory and animated by slangy, gritty, foul-mouthed characters who somehow insist on keeping the stakes very real.
The scrappy Forum Theatre made an exhilarating show of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s sprawling drama six years ago at the H Street Playhouse, which has since been abandoned for redevelopment. Now Forum and director John Vreeke are getting the band back together for a remount — let’s not call it a resurrection — in the more spacious Round House Silver Spring theater, next to the AFI movie complex.
Good news: The muscle memory is intact, and the show remains a blustery dazzler.
If three hours of Bible analysis as rehashed in the language of gangsters isn’t your thing, so be it. (The runaway success of “Book of Mormon” suggests we’re fine with that.) Guirgis’s style is unabashedly in-your-face and sometimes slapstick silly, yet he establishes his startlingly deep earnestness right at the top. The play opens with a quiet, piercing monologue from Judas’s mother (Annie Houston), and her pain commands respect.
More sympathy for the damned arrives in the form of a defense lawyer zestfully named Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, an aggressive figure in a black dress and strappy heels. Cunningham, played with salty assurance by Julie Garner, demands that Judas’s appeal be heard by this purgatorial kangaroo court. The blowhard Southern judge — a character that would seem doomed for the rocks of cliche, yet which thrives in Brian Hemmingsen’s drawling comic turn — wants none of it. Over and over he bellows, “Next case!”
The trial is inevitable, though, and it’s a wild one. Vaudeville hijinks abound: The judge keeps referring to the clownish prosecuting attorney, Yusef El-Fayoumy, as “Mr. El-Fajita.” El-Fayoumy butters up the judge and blurts inane objections; this buffoon is the play’s comic fail-safe, and Scott McCormick nails punch line after punch line.
Pontius Pilate takes the stand. So does Mother Teresa (she’s funny, too). So does Satan. Guirgis, whose “The Mother — With the Hat” starred Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale on Broadway in 2011, and whose off-Broadway dramas were often directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, may be windy, but he’s also pretty fearless. The roles here crackle with clever comebacks and blistering speeches.
Vreeke’s gang got this mixed tone exactly right six years ago, and once again their aim is true. Most of the actors are back, including Jim Jorgensen as a flashy, white-suited Satan, Patrick Bussink as a sublimely patient Jesus in jeans and T-shirt, and Frank Britton as a commandingly guttural, militaristic Pilate. (Britton was brutally attacked by four men near a Metro station after Monday’s opening and may be out of the show indefinitely, pending surgery.)
Newcomers include Thony Mena as the amusingly feisty Simon the Zealot, Nora Achrati as a puckish Mother Teresa, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, ferociously bitter and despairing as Judas. The set by Colin K. Bills, who also designed the stark lighting, remains simple: a high bench for the judge and a small raised circle (of hell, though it’s textured like a manhole cover) where Judas unobtrusively nests while the debate largely swirls around him.
Visually, the rest is a cosmic void that’s more richly amplified here than it was on H Street. The wide stage and high ceiling are perfect for the shifty torrent of words and passions in “Last Days.” The play demands everything from whiffs of burlesque to the intensity of chapel, and Vreeke’s 15 actors routinely turn it on a dime.
by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by John Vreeke. Costumes, Brittany Graham; sound design, Michael Dove. With Kecia A. Campbell, Alina Collins Maldonado, Frank B. Moorman and Jesse Terrill. About three hours. Through June 14 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Call 240-644-1390 or visit forum-theatre.com.