Jason Alexander and a talented cast hilariously probe morality in Judgment Day

Photo by Liz Lauren

Jason Alexander is the perfect actor to play a deeply flawed but somehow sympathetic character; after all, he did it for nine seasons of Seinfeld as George Costanza. In Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s world premiere of Rob Ulin’s hilarious Judgment Day, Alexander’s unique ability to make us care about and laugh with perfectly awful characters reaches an apex: his Sammy Campo is the kind of guy who gives the people who give lawyers a bad name a bad name. He preys on the weak, lining his own pockets while he makes the fat cats fatter. (Olivia D. Dawson plays his sardonic assistant who is stuck helping him with whatever outrageous things he decides to do.) When he has a heart attack at the end of the play’s opening scene, though, we sense a kind of just comeuppance. And we almost get it.

While on the table, clearly dying, he has an out-of-body experience in which an angel (his old elementary school teacher—played with wonderfully over-the-top energy by Candy Buckley—who always knew he was a rotten human being) gloats that he is finally heading to hell. But the thing is that Sammy, for all of his mriad faults, is a very good lawyer even if he uses his skills for evil: when he discovers that the rules say that she was supposed to wait until he was actually dead and realizes that she has jumped the gun, he manages to finagle another chance at life. She makes it clear, though, that if he doesn’t spend the rest of his life doing good deeds he will burn.

He does get her to acknowledge, however, that he doesn’t really have to change in his heart: it’s the actions of a person, not their intentions, that matter. It’s a massive loophole for a despicable man who has made a living exploiting them. Armed with this knowledge, he seeks to do enough good—to get enough “heaven points”—to save himself…even though he recognizes that his heart hasn’t changed. He’s doing good for selfish reasons, but the angel told him it doesn’t matter, and thus begins a philosophical conundrum for him: if a person performs enough good deeds, even for the wrong reasons, can he actually become good?

The play, crisply directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel on set pieces by Beowulf Boritt that role in and out, is a thoroughly entertaining comedy that blends hilarity with compassion. Sammy meets a Catholic priest (Danny Breaker) who is having a crisis of faith of his own, and the two extremely dissimilar men find themselves working together to save an old woman—one of Father Michael’s parishioners—from a predatory insurance agent (an underdeveloped character played by Joe Dempsey) who is somehow an even worse human being than Sammy. And the priest, meanwhile, gets spiritual advice from his Monsignor (Michael Kostroff) who embodies the hypocritical, or at least uncritical, nature of much of the world’s religion. (Kostroff absolutely steals his scenes with comic brilliance.)

Sammy’s past comes into focus through his attempts to make amends to the one person he has hurt the most: the wife he simply left one day without looking back. Maggie Bofill is outstanding as Tracy, also the mother of a child Sammy didn’t know he has, and her struggle to allow him back into her life is equal to the crisis that Father Michael faces: both illustrate the results of Sammy’s collision of a lifetime of selfish, appalling actions with a newfound desire to be a better man; neither Michael nor Tracy will emerge without changes.

There is also plenty of (mostly) good-natured skewering of religion and morality in general and Catholicism in particular, including the apparent condoning of violence with a gift from the angel of bejeweled hand grenade. (I can’t be the only Monty Python fan flashing back to a famous scene in “Holy Grail.”) And amid all of it, Breaker’s flawed priest remains the stalwart embodiment of sincere (and sincerely conflicted) honesty and holiness…a bastion of probity struggling to maintain itself in an otherwise outrageous world.

Judgment Day is not fully realized in its world premiere form—some scenes just sort of end, as if Ulin ran out of ideas while still writing them and his structure borrows too much from his history of writing for TV; and those role-in sets, while individually excellent, cramp the actor’s movements even on the expansive stage of The Yard—but it will undoubtedly be tweaked as it continues, and the bottom line is that it is an outrageously funny show featuring excellent performances. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has had a recent run of its productions making the journey to Broadway; this play may well add to the list.

Judgment Day is presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and is now playing at the Yard in Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Avenue, until May 26. Performance times vary; check the website at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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