This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

RESTART STAGES: LOOK WHO’S COMING TO DINNER / BECOMING OTHELLO / DARK DISABLED STORIES

RESTART STAGES
Lincoln Center, the Isabel and Peter Malkin Stage at Hearst Plaza
Company SBB//Stefanie Batten Bland, Look Who’s Coming to Dinner
Tuesday, August 3, free with RSVP, 7:00
Debra Ann Byrd, Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey
Wednesday, August 4, free with RSVP, 7:00
Ryan J. Haddad, Dark Disabled Stories
Thursday, August 5, free with RSVP, 7:00
www.lincolncenter.org

Lincoln Center’s ambitious Restart Stages program, welcoming back audiences with free outdoor multidisciplinary performances, continues this week with one-time-only shows by three distinct creators, available through the TodayTix lottery. On Tuesday, August 3, at 7:00, Company SBB//Stefanie Batten Bland serves up Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, a new take on Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The movie, which was nominated for ten Oscars and won for Best Actress and Best Original Story and Screenplay, is about an interracial couple portrayed by Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton who are celebrating their engagement by visiting her parents, a liberal couple played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn who are not exactly thrilled at first to see who their daughter will be marrying. SBB has been busy during the pandemic, presenting such works as Kolonial for BAC, This Moment for Works and Process at the Guggenheim, Unnatural Contradictions for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and Mondays at Two, exploring safe spaces, isolation, racial injustice, and the coronavirus crisis, in addition to a three-week residency at the Yard on Martha’s Vineyard that culminated in the dance-theater installation Embarqued: Stories of Soil.

Debra Ann Byrd brings her one-woman show, Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, to Restart Stages this week (photo by Christina Lane / Shakespeare and Company)

If you missed Debra Ann Byrd’s Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey at Shakespeare & Company’s Roman Garden Theatre earlier this month, you can catch it on Wednesday, August 4, at 7:00 on the Isabel and Peter Malkin Stage at Hearst Plaza at Lincoln Center. Directed by Tina Packard, the one-woman show of song and text details Byrd’s experiences as a Black woman attempting to be a classical actress, detailing a life that has included foster care, teen pregnancy, trauma, abuse, and single parenting on a path to play Othello (while also becoming the founding artistic director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival).

In February 2021, Ryan J. Haddad’s one-man show, Hi, Are You Single?, streamed from Woolly Mammoth, where it was filmed live onstage in front of a limited, socially distanced, masked audience made up of members of the staff and crew, one of the first to do that; the bittersweet autobiographical piece follows Haddad, who has cerebral palsy and requires a walker, as he searches for love in all the wrong places. Haddad can currently be seen in “Wings and Rings,” a short film he made with set designers Emmie Finckel and Riccardo Hernández for Lynn Nottage and Miranda Haymon’s installation The Watering Hole at the Signature. In the ten-minute work, Haddad relives a terrifying moment from his childhood involving swimming in a pool. On Thursday, August 5, at 7:00, at Restart Stages, Haddad will premiere his latest solo show, Dark Disabled Stories, in which he discusses a crosstown bus, a bathroom stall, and Gramercy Park as he encounters strangers and confronts ableism wherever he goes.

THE CORDELIA DREAM: A PERFORMANCE ON SCREEN

Danielle Ryan and Stephen Brennan are exceptional as a bitter daughter and father in streaming revival of Marina Carr’s The Cordelia Dream

THE CORDELIA DREAM
Irish Rep Online
Daily through August 8, suggested donation $25
irishrep.org

Summer theater in New York City is dominated by outdoor Shakespeare presentations, including Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’s Two Noble Kinsmen, the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Seize the King, the Public Theater’s Merry Wives of Windsor at the Delacorte and the Mobile Unit’s Shakespeare: Call and Response, and NY Classical’s King Lear with a happy ending.

One of the best productions is taking place indoors, but not in a theater with an audience. I wouldn’t be giving anything away if I told you that there is no happy ending in the Irish Rep’s virtual revival of Marina Carr’s The Cordelia Dream, streaming online through August 8. The brutal, relentless two-act, ninety-minute play was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and debuted in 2008 at Wilton’s Music Hall in London. Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly of the Irish Rep, in association with casting director and producer Bonnie Timmermann, enlisted director Joe O’Byrne to helm a new version filmed at the New Theatre in Dublin, as part of the innovative company’s continuing onscreen works made during the pandemic.

The play takes place in a dark, eerie room where an elderly man (Stephen Brennan) lives alone, drinking by himself and playing his piano. He is visited one day by his long-estranged daughter (Danielle Ryan); they have not seen each other in many years, and their discomfort and hostility are immediately apparent in their initial exchange.

Man: You.
Woman: Yes. Me.
Man: Well.
Woman: It wasn’t easy . . . seeking you out.
Man: Wasn’t it?
Woman: I stayed away as long as I could.
Man: You think I’m going to die soon?
Woman: Maybe.
Man: You want to kiss and make up before the event?
Woman: Some people visit each other all the time.
Man: I’m not some people. You of all people should know that.
Woman: Can I come in or not?

There is no love lost between father and daughter; it’s as if an older Cordelia has come to see her aging father, both filled with resentment, no reconciliation in sight. “Love needs a streak of darkness. The day is for solitude. Morning especially. Morning is for death,” he says. “And afternoons?” she asks. “At your age they’re for transgressions, at mine they’re for remorse,” he replies. “You know about remorse?” she wonders. “I’m an expert on it,” he answers.

Both characters are revealed as cold and cruel as details of their lives emerge in the corrosive conversation. He is an extremely talented but failed composer attempting to create his magnum opus before he dies, while she is a famous composer who has not been able to enjoy her success. He accuses her of wasting her gifts, claiming his superiority, unashamed of his hatred of her. He is glad that none of her children are named after him; he even criticizes the wine she brought. “You are very mediocre,” he declares. “Does mediocre need ‘very’ in front of it?” she asks. “When talking about you. Yes, it does,” he replies with bitterness.

She is there to say her piece, not about to cower from him. “You haven’t left me alone,” she says. “You’ve retreated to this sulphurous corner to gather venom for the next assault. You? Leave me alone? You haunt me.”

She has also come to tell him about a dream she has had, about their life and death, about the four howls and the five “never”s in Shakespeare’s grand tragedy. “You think you’re Cordelia to my Lear. No, my dear. You’re more Regan and Goneril spun,” he spits at her. “And you’re no Lear,” she shoots back, soon leaving.

She returns five years later, but it is not quite the same. His mental faculties are decreasing, not unlike the mad Lear’s, thinking her to be the goat-faced, dog-hearted dark lady of his nightmares, a reference to the character Shakespeare addresses in Sonnet 130 and others, whom he loves but cannot outright compliment, disparaging her instead. He recalls moments from his past but is foggy. “Your self-delusion is complete,” she says. “Men should not have daughters,” he opines. The acerbic cat-and-mouse dialogue continues as they eviscerate each other till nothing’s left.

Fiercely directed by Joe O’Byrne (McKeague and O’Brien present “The Rising,” Frank Pig Says Hello), The Cordelia Dream is a merciless, unyielding depiction of an unredeemable relationship between a father and daughter. With biting language, Carr (Woman and Scarecrow, Marble) brilliantly compares the creation of a work of art to the birth of a child and all the responsibilities that are supposed to accompany it. The play is intimately photographed and edited by Emmy winner Nick Ryan, with ghostly set design by Robert Ballagh and sound and original music by Emmy nominee David Downes, the actors naturally lit by a few lamps and a window that offers brief reprieves from the enveloping darkness that makes it feel like it is all a dream.

Brennan (A Life, The Pinter Landscape) commands the screen with an immense presence, his white-haired, white-bearded character skewering his daughter with relish, unafraid of any consequences. Ryan (Harry Wild, Wild Mountain Thyme), who made her professional debut in 2007 playing Cordelia and Brigitte in the Edinburgh Fringe award winner Food, portrays the lost woman with a graceful finesse as she tries to unburden herself of the many ways she claims he destroyed her life. The harrowing work hits even deeper at a time when loved ones are reuniting after the long pandemic lockdown, with hugs and kisses, smiles of relief and unabashed joy, none of which is evident in these two characters who harbor a disturbing, apparently unsalvageable history.

SABAYA

Sabaya tells the story of brutalized Yazidi women at the hands of Daesh in a Syrian camp

SABAYA (Hogir Hirori, 2021)
Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
Opens Friday, July 30
212-727-8110
filmforum.org
www.sabayathefilm.com

“What must be done so a woman will not be a victim of war?” twenty-one-year-old human rights activist Nadia Murad, a member of the Yazidi religious minority, asks in Alexandria Bombach’s award-winning 2018 documentary, On Her Shoulders. Murad’s question is not rhetorical; she was brutalized as a sex slave herself when Daesh (ISIS) attacked the Yazidi, followers of a small, ancient monotheistic religion. Swedish-Kurdish filmmaker Hogir Hirori explores the horrors further in the real-life thriller Sabaya, which opens July 30 at Film Forum (and will be available on demand starting August 6).

On August 3, 2014, Daesh stormed Yazidi villages in Sinjar province in northern Iraq, murdering men, women, and children while also kidnapping thousands of girls and young women, who were beaten, raped, and forced to convert to Islam. The abused women are known as sabaya, or sex slaves, who serve multiple terrorist husbands and have their babies. Over eighteen months, Hirori made six visits to Syria, embedding himself with a handful of volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center as they attempt to rescue sabaya, one at a time.

Armed with a cellphone and a gun, Mahmud, Ziyad, and a few others make dangerous sojourns at night into the Al-Hol camp in Syria, where more than seventy-three thousand Daesh live, guarded by Kurdish troops. Mahmud and Ziyad track down specific girls and young women using information from their family and female infiltrators who have been placed on the inside, risking their own lives to save these sabaya. At one point, Mahmud goes into Hassake Prison, where fifteen thousand Daesh captives are piled into rooms, as he searches out someone who will talk.

When Mahmud and Ziyad succeed, they drive the women back to the center, a ramshackle structure in a deserted area where Mahmud’s wife, Siham, and mother, Zahra, try to help the traumatized women adjust and eventually reunite them with their loved ones who, if they’re still alive, are ready to welcome them back with open arms, a refreshing difference from other religions in which they are more likely to be murdered in an honor killing or shunned from society. These sabaya are often engulfed in shame and sometimes suicidal, preferring death to a life haunted by the memories of their experiences.

“You are safe now. No one is going to hurt you,” Zahra tells a newly freed Leila, who shares her story, tears in her eyes. “We were happy in our previous lives,” Leila says. “Even though we were poor, we were happy. Then they came and killed all the men. They took us women to the city of Mosul. I can’t . . . take any more.” Meanwhile, Mahmud and Siham’s young son, Suleyman, plays, smiles, and laughs, unwittingly bringing hope and joy to the women.

Winner of the Directing Award for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance, Hirori (The Deminer) directed, edited, and photographed the film, mostly working alone or with one assistant, venturing into harm’s way as Mahmud and Ziyad head into the darkness and are shot at and threatened, undeterred from their mission to bring back as many of the missing sabaya, numbering more than two thousand, some as young as seven, as they can. Sabaya is a powerful, gripping reminder of what is happening to women and religious minorities around the world every day, and that there are quiet, unrecognized heroes like Mahmud toiling away in the shadows as well as public advocates like Murad, risking their own safety to do something about it. It’s also a harrowing chronicle of the innate cruelty of too much of humanity.

MOBILE UNIT’S SUMMER OF JOY

THE PUBLIC THEATER’S MOBILE UNIT
Multiple locations in all five boroughs
July 31 - August 29, free
publictheater.org

The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit is back on the road after being sidelined by the pandemic lockdown last year, bringing free pop-up Shakespeare to locations across the five boroughs. “I always felt that we should travel,” Public founder Joseph Papp said once upon a time. “I wanted to bring Shakespeare to the people.” The Public has been doing just that in one form or another since 1957; this summer the Mobile Unit, in its tenth year, will be bringing two productions to plazas and squares from July 31 to August 29. Each presentation begins with the National Black Theatre’s Stage for Healing and Resilience, which will provide a space for reflection, meditation, and sharing. That will be followed by Verses @ Work — The Abridged Mix, Mobile Unit in Corrections artist Malik Work’s one-man show that incorporates verse, video, live music, musical theater, jazz, hip-hop, spoken word, and dance. Coproduced by the Public with NBT and directed by Vernice Miller, the autobiographical piece, inspired in part by Homer’s Odyssey, was nominated for a 2017 Audelco Award for Best Solo Performance and was turned into a film; Work has also staged a one-man adaptation of Timon of Athens and teaches Shakespeare, acting, and hip-hop theater. The free afternoon concludes with the hourlong Shakespeare: Call and Response; conceived by director Patricia McGregor, it features Sofia Jean Gomez, Teresa Avia Lim, Reza Salazar, and Work interacting with the audience through text, music, dance, and improv, playing multiple roles anchored by an MC and DJ duo rapping in iambic pentameter, with scenic design by Diggle, costumes by Katherine O’Neill, sound by Jorge Olivo, and choreography by Paloma McGregor (Patricia’s sister).

“The Mobile Unit is the purest expression of the Public’s conviction that the culture belongs to everyone. Our return this summer is a thrilling and responsive artistic expression born from this historical moment. We are responding to the call of community and creating a unifying embodiment of theater for this city,” Public artistic director Oskar Eustis said in a statement. Mobile Unit director Karen Ann Daniels added, “It is essential for the Mobile Unit to build something that could speak to the moment — a unique format that would reinvigorate our communal spaces and our connection to each other. We all came to the table with a strong sense that it is only through the creation of our art, and inviting our community’s participation in it, that we could offer healing, resilience, and the unbridled joy of the simple act of gathering.” The tour begins July 31 and August 1 at Astor Plaza, moving August 5-6 to Roberto Clemente Plaza, August 7-8 to Johnny Hartman Plaza, August 12 and 28-29 to Osborn Plaza, August 13 and 20 to Albee Square, August 14-15 to 125th Street Plaza, August 19 and 26-27 to Minthorne Street, and August 21-22 to Myrtle/Wyckoff Plaza; all shows are at 4:30 except for August 7-8, which start at 2:00. Also joining in the “Summer of Joy” will be the People’s Bus, a community-led initiative that repurposes a retired NYC prisoner transport vehicle into a mobile center that provides “resources and education to restore and build trust in our democracy.”

FREE UPTOWN SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK: SEIZE THE KING

Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Seize the King offers a unique update on the Bard’s Richard III (photo © Richard Termine)

SEIZE THE KING
Marcus Garvey Park, Richard Rodgers Amphitheater
Through July 29, free (no RSVP necessary), 8:30
www.cthnyc.org

There’s a lot you won’t find in Seize the King, Will Power’s modern-day reimagination of Shakespeare’s Richard III, being staged by the Classical Theatre of Harlem at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park through July 29. There’s no mention of a discontented winter, proving to be a villain, or horses to trade for a kingdom. Writer Power and director Carl Cofield have streamlined the timeless story about the hunger for power to ninety minutes, performed by five actors portraying more than a dozen and a half roles; don’t wait around for Clarence, the Duchess of York, Queen Margaret, Sir William Catesby, Sir James Tyrrell, Henry Tudor, or the Archbishop of Canterbury to take the stage. But what you will find in the triumphant production is an exciting updating of a tale that’s all too familiar and one that keeps repeating itself. “When he comes back, will thou be ready?” the audience is asked at the end. “Can you keep the devil down in the hole?”

Seize the King begins with the death of the beloved King Edward IV, leaving his young son, Edward V (Alisha Espinosa), as heir to the throne. Edward’s brother, Richard (Ro Boddie), the Duke of Gloucester, was named to be the twelve-year-old Edward’s Lord Protector, but Lord Hastings (RJ Foster) doesn’t trust him, with good reason, as Richard believes that he should be the next king. Hastings tells him, “Edward intended for you to be Lord Protector / Still, his true intention is to insure that his son in two years’ time / Be crowned the reigning king of all, none other but him.” Richard answers curtly, “Of course.” Hastings emphasizes, “Only him.” Richard responds, “Yes, only him,” but he is already plotting his nephew’s demise.

Sides are drawn, with Lord Hastings defending Edward V and his mother, Queen Woodville (Andrea Patterson), while Richard eventually convinces an unsure Lord Buckingham (Carson Elrod) to join him. Richard attempts to woo Lady Anne Neville (Espinosa), the widow of Edward, Prince of Wales, to his cause, addressing her while she is taking a bath. “Sweet you are, love I my syrup thick / Allow me to pour this sweet over your / Stack Pancakes, but much more than pleasures,” he says. The wealthy Lady Anne is on to him immediately but is ready to make a deal. “What need I for you? / Come now, let’s talk bidness. / What offer you?” she declares. “You thought your sweet words would be enough? / Please, I got big jocks jockin’ all the time for these vast lands.”

As all roads lead to Bosworth Field, Power sprinkles in references to Fat Albert, Stairmaster, eating sushi with a fork, birth control, and Mother Teresa as well as to other Shakespeare plays and contemporary politics. “England first,” Buckingham proclaims to the people as if he’s speaking to a MAGA crowd. He crows, “Since good Edward Four ascended to / Heavenly orbs. Now what surrounds us? / Foreign heathens that take ours / Immigrants invade while we sit jobless / They up up up the ladder, up the stairs / While we, at dreadful base, now we step — oh / Now the stairs rickety, they are unusable / Cracked is the wood, trapped are we at base / We now at foot and they at head / Imagine the crown worn by them / And we rebuild stairs for them to ascend.”

Power (Stagger Lee, Steel Hammer), an actor, rapper, teacher, and hip-hop theater pioneer, and actor, teacher, and director Cofield (One Night in Miami, Dutchman), the associate artistic director of the company, previously collaborated on Power’s play The Seven, and they are in sync on Seize the King, balancing the old and the new with an occasional slip toward pedagogy and goofiness. The play, which had its world premiere in August 2018 at La Jolla Playhouse, takes place on Christopher and Justin Swader’s crooked stage, effectively lit by Alan C. Edwards, evoking rampant corruption and Richard’s state of mind; Brittany Bland’s projections range from scenes of war and protest to shimmering water and emphasis on a large crack in the back wall. Samantha Shoffner’s props, including a bathtub, a topiary, and a memorial table, are wheeled on and off by either the actors or dancers Daniela Funicello, Tracy Dunbar, Jenny Hegarty Freeman, Hannah Gross, and Alisa Gregory, who perform Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s lovely choreography to interstitial music by sound designer Frederick Kennedy, from Baroque to hip-hop.

Mika Eubanks seems to have had a ball designing the costumes, especially Queen Woodville’s — she’s styled like Beyoncé — and Richard’s coronation robes, which gets its own scene, proudly exhibited by Greygor the tailor (Foster), who explains, “Look this, crimson cloth of maggot Kermes / Peeled from trees of oak to retrieve the reddish juice / Insect bodies dried out to produce dye / Human bodies dried out to produce cloth / Blood-red pure crimson death to give life / All sacrifice for him no matter cost.”

Boddie plays Richard with a limp but is always standing tall, not hunched over, and is more handsome than the wicked Gloucester is usually portrayed. Foster is terrific as Hastings, a steadfast and honest man, Reverend Shaw, whose piety is for sale, and Greygor, who appears to have walked out of an episode of Pose. Patterson and Espinosa delight in their characters’ verbal battles with Richard, but it’s Elrod who nearly steals the show in multiple roles, from the well-meaning Buckingham and the chorus to a wise gardener and a royal servant who has an unusual message for Hastings and the Queen: “Uh, well, I wasn’t supposed to deliver nothing further but I did hear him say ‘The Queen ain’t shit! I’ma prune her ass’ or something to that effect.” You won’t find that in Shakespeare’s original text.

TICKET ALERT: BAM FALL 2021 SEASON

The sandy Sun & Sea brings the beach to Fort Greene (photo by Andrej Vasilenko)

BAM Fisher, Fishman Space
321 Ashland Pl.
September 15 - November 6, $25-$35
www.bam.org

One of the places I’ve missed the most since the pandemic lockdown began in March 2020 is BAM, my performance-venue home-away-from-home. Over the decades, the Fort Greene institution’s exciting cutting-edge programming of innovative works from around the world has been a kind of lifeline for me. I remember in October 2012, after Hurricane Sandy paralyzed the state, I took an extremely slow bus through a dark, bleak city, on my way to BAM to see a show as if that would signal we would all get past this disaster. I made it just in time, breathing heavily, soon immersed in the wonders of how dance, music, art, and theater can lift you up. And so I relished the news when BAM announced its reopening for the fall 2021 season, featuring four works at the intimate BAM Fisher. “The hunger for artistic adventures has never been greater as our world continues to change around us,” BAM artistic director David Binder said in a statement. “Our 2021-22 season kicks off with works from a cohort of remarkable international artists, all of whom are making their BAM debuts. New forms and new ideas will abound in the Fisher, as they create singular experiences that can only happen at BAM.”

ASUNA’s 100 Keyboards will be performed in the round at the BAM Fisher (photo by Ritsuko Sakata)

The season kicks off September 15-26 with Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė’s Sun & Sea, which turns the Fisher into a beach. Winner of the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, the work, commissioned for the Lithuanian Pavilion at the fifty-eighth International Art Exhibition, takes place on twenty-five tons of sand on which thirteen vocalists sing a wide array of stories, with a libretto by Vaiva Grainytė and music and musical direction by Lina Lapelytė. Sun & Sea is followed September 30 to October 2 by 100 Keyboards, in which Japanese sound artist ASUNA performs a unique concert in the round on one hundred battery-operated mini keyboards of multiple colors, creating a mysterious sound moire as the audience walks around him, picking up different reverberations.

Cia Suave makes its US debut at BAM with Cria (photo © Renato Mangolin)

In By Heart, running October 5-17, ten audience members join Portuguese artist and Avignon Festival director Tiago Rodrigues onstage, memorizing lines from such writers as William Shakespeare, Ray Bradbury, George Steiner, and Joseph Brodsky to create a new narrative consisting of forbidden texts while the rest of the audience watches (and sometimes participates as well); the set and costume design is by Magda Bizarro, with English translations by Rodrigues, revised by Joana Frazão. And in Cria (November 2-6), Brazilian troupe Cia Suave celebrates the passion of adolescence in a piece choreographed by Alice Ripoll and performed by ten members of the all-Black company of cis and trans dancers who proclaim, “We are CRIA, not created. Little breeds. Loneliness. To smear yourself. The act, the creation and its moment. Sprout. The heart saying, ‘hit me’ with every punch of suffering. In scene birth and death. Each time. Even in childbirth there is a force that wants to give up. A life that begins touches the sublime.” Tickets go on sale today at noon; the way New Yorkers have been snatching up tickets for live, in-person events, you better hurry if you want to catch any of these promising shows in the small, intimate BAM Fisher.

BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY: JUDGMENT DAY

Jason Alexander and Patti LuPone are outrageously funny in virtual production of Judgment Day

JUDGMENT DAY
Barrington Stage Company
July 26 – August 1, $8.99 through July 26, $11.99 after
jd.stellartickets.com
barringtonstageco.org

Jason Alexander is at his hysterical best as a selfish, greedy lawyer who survives a near-death experience in Pittsfield-based Barrington Stage Company’s hilarious online reading of Rob Ulin’s Judgment Day. The Zoom play premiered last August but is back for a well-deserved encore presentation July 26 through August 1 via the Stellar platform.

Alexander, a Tony and Emmy winner who stole the show as Mervyn Kant in a virtual production of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig in May, stars as Sammy Campo, a ruthless lawyer with no moral compass, willing to do anything to get what he wants. In the opening scene, after he closes another shady deal, we learn all we need to know about him during this delicious exchange with his secretary, Della (Loretta Devine), who reads from a letter he just received.

Della: You’ve been called before the Bar Association again. They’re citing “abuse of process, suborning perjury, and obstruction of justice.”
Sammy: The deal is fully funded. This one’s gonna put me over the top!
Della: “Grand larceny, money laundering, forgery, witnesses tampering, witness intimidation.”
Sammy: Yeah, I was expecting that; they’ve got nothing. Did you hear me? The deal is done.
Della: “Consorting with known felons, drug and alcohol abuse, solicitation of prostitution, public nakedness, public urination, foul and unsavory language in the presence of children and the elderly.”
Sammy: Shush with that! Don’t wreck this moment. Do you know why this deal means so much to me?
Della: Because of the money.
Sammy: Wrong! It is not because of the money. It’s because the money will now belong to me. Money that used to be other people’s will now become mine. I came into this world a little speck of nothing. Unloved, unlaid. The world tried to beat me into a passive little milquetoast who would settle for a crumb, but do you know what I said to that offer?
Della: You said no.
Sammy: I said no! I demanded more, From the time I was a little kid, I defied the law of the playground, I defied the law of the pecking order.
Della: You defied the law.

But just as Sammy is bragging about how he played the game his way and won, he suffers a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital, where, as the doctors crack open his chest trying to save him, an angel arrives in the form of his dreaded Catholic school teacher. Sister Margaret (Tony and Grammy winner Patti LuPone) appears to have been waiting a long time for the day she can send Sammy to hell.

“I have come to deliver justice,” she announces. “Wow. So this means God is real,” Sammy suddenly understands. “Shit.” But when he realizes that the angel has snatched him too soon from the jaws of death — the doctors are still working on him — he negotiates his return to the living. “I may be a scumbag. But this isn’t about me. This is about the Law,” he explains. “Your legal sophistry will not work on me,” she says. “It might work on some archangel up the ladder who’s a hardass for the Immutable Laws of God,” Sammy answers. “Some seraphim might think an angel who bends the rules needs a job with less responsibility, like moving clouds around or wiping some cherub’s ass. Looks to me like you blew it, Sister.”

Proudly displaying his lack of a conscience, Sammy is soon making a deal with Father Michael (Tony winner Santino Fontana) to take a case in which elderly widow Edna Fillmore (Carol Mansell) has been denied her late husband’s insurance because she missed one payment. The Monsignor (Grammy winner Michael McKean) tells Father Michael not to work with Sammy, but Father Michael considers bending the rules in order to help Edna. “God cares what’s in your heart,” Father Michael says gently to Sammy, who responds, “Wrong. Angel Sister Margaret said, ‘We do not care how you feel or why you made your choices. Human beings are judged solely by their deeds.’ So I wanna figure out the rock-bottom least amount of good I need to do to get into Heaven.”

Meanwhile, Sammy goes back to the wife he walked out on ten years ago, Tracy (Justina Machado), only to find a surprise: her troubled nine-year-old son, Casper (Julian Emile Lerner). Sammy might have a new lease on life, but that hasn’t changed him one bit. “Acting kind and generous is harder for folks like us who don’t mean it,” he teaches the boy. “There’s no trick to being compassionate if you’re born with compassion. It’s a much greater accomplishment to help your fellow man if you don’t give a shit about him.” Soon he’s negotiating with Casper’s principal (Bianca LaVerne Jones) and Edna’s insurance agent, Jackson (Michael Mastro), incorporating the help of the sexy Chandra (Elizabeth Stanley) when necessary. It appears that there’s no situation he doesn’t believe he can’t haggle his way out of, no matter how high the authority of the person — or angel — he is bargaining with, and he always believes he is in the right. “Without laws, we’d just be animals,” he tells Casper. “The big guy would always defeat the little guy. But in a world of laws, there’s a role for the wily guy. The big guy will always get to make the laws. But a wily lawyer can find ways around the laws so the little guy has a chance.”

Judgment Day is a nonstop eighty-two-minute treat as Ulin, a former Harvard Lampoon editor who has been a co-executive producer on such television series as Malcolm in the Middle, Rosanne, and Ramy, takes on such lofty issues as faith and belief and the rules of society, pitting religion and the law against each other with a wicked sense of humor. Sammy is a fantastic character, a smart-mouthed “scumbag” who actually has an intelligent outlook on the world, finding the cracks and exploiting them to his advantage without a second thought. When Father Michael tells him, “I am a priest. I don’t do blackmail,” Sammy quickly retorts, “Doing blackmail is your whole job! Every Sunday you guys stand in your pulpit and tell a billion Catholics, do what we say or burn forever.”

He doesn’t hide who he is or what he is after, and Alexander is brilliant in the role, smirking away with glee. Director Matthew Penn (Mother of the Maid, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You) wisely lets Alexander and LuPone chew up the scenery — well, actually, there is no scenery, just plain Zoom backgrounds, save for simple line drawings by Melanie Cummings that announce the locations. Alexander and LuPone’s over-the-top energy is offset by the calm demeanor of Fontana, Devine, and McKean, with Machado playing it straight right down the middle. Be sure to stick around through the credits for some fun clips from the Zoom rehearsals.