Review: In ‘Judgment Day’ at Chicago Shakes, Jason Alexander delivers huge, old-school laughs

His loathsome character a cross between Billy Bigelow, Roy Cohn and George Burns, the “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander sits atop a gutsy and wickedly funny new satire at Chicago Shakespeare Theater that will come as a blessed relief for anyone over-satiated with moralizing, we-know-best-you-fools theater.

Anyone with functioning arteries will laugh their socks off at some of the old-school gags in “Judgment Day.” And given the number of Broadway backers and recognizable producers toddling through the theater’s Yard space Wednesday night, a Broadway transfer looks both likely and deserved. Assuming a bit more work gets done to director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production and Rob Ulin’s script.

Already, though, “Judgment Day” has a much-loved star, clearly relaxed and having a blast doing something a little different, and a knockout comic turn from laconic second banana Daniel Breaker (“Passing Strange”), playing a doubting priest whose droll twofer scenes with Alexander are filled with hard laughs. That’s always the best criterion on which to judge shows like this one. Not titters. Guffaws. There are plenty thereof.

Here’s the premise. Sammy Campo (Alexander) is an unethical, amoral and generally deplorable lawyer who, after about 30 seconds of the play, has a heart attack. Although mourned by no one on terra firma, Sammy gets visited by an angel (Candy Buckley) as they’re code-redding him in the emergency room, a winged creature straight out of Tony Kushner-land who also somehow resembles a nun who was one of Sammy’s numerous childhood antagonists. She tells him hell is on his dance card, God being real, alas for a Sammy who was hoping otherwise, but she also offers him a Hail Mary. He can go back to Earth, do good stuff for people, and earn enough points to get into heaven.

At this juncture, you think, oh, here’s a well-worn device with shades of “Carousel,” “Doctor Faustus,” “Damn Yankees,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Gandolf. But Ulin has written a clever twist: this mercenary angel doesn’t give a darn about what’s in Sammy’s heart, telling him that entry into heaven is a transactional kind of business where the entry fee is good deeds, even if done by lousy people. This complicates comedic matters rather deliciously: Sammy not only has a quest for personal redemption on his hands, he also has to make sure that doing nice stuff for people like Edna (Meg Thalken) doesn’t compromise the loathsome personality of which he is so proud. A double pitfall, you might say. Nice.

Since priests know the needy, Sammy’s alignment with Father Michael (Breaker) allows Ulin to get in some licks at the paradoxes of religion, especially that tricky line between moral actions and those that actually get real-world results, not to mention the chance to send some barbs the way of the Catholic Church (as exemplified by a Monsignor, played by Michael Kostroff). But it also means he can deepen the play with a few Larry David-esque philosophical discussions so you don’t feel like you’re just watching a facile farce. Sammy also has an ex-wife (the very funny Maggie Bofill), whose hatred for him know no bounds. She’s got a kid (Ellis Myers). So there’s an emotional pull, too, leavening all the cynical gags that teeter deliciously on the boundaries of causing offense, a risk any satire worth its salt should take.

Alexander knows from comedy, of course, and is a blast to watch, although I’m not sure he needs quite so heavy a fuhgeddaboudit accent, which initially distracts. The overwrought and muddy scenes with the angel also need more work; they’d be far funnier if played more simply with greater truth and a dryer sense of irony. Also in need of revisit is the physicality of those visitations. Actually, I don’t think the distinguished set designer Beowulf Boritt has yet nailed the right look for the show, overall.

But those are minor, fixable quibbles in what is, without question, the kind of boffo, old-school comedy you just don’t see much any more, a show that feels like the child of Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and early Christopher Durang, may he rest in peace. I think the script, still somewhat underbaked, mostly needs more material, more good deeds for bad Sammy. We see him try to help an old lady at odds with an insurance adjuster (Joe Dempsey, diving deep) and that’s often hilarious, but that main caper could use some supporting capers to beef up the fun. The show could stand another 10 minutes of oomph and, lord knows, the actors are on hand.

Still, whether its with Breaker’s melancholic priest, Bofill’s bitter ex or Olivia D. Dawson’s sandpaper-dry legal secretary, Alexander generously shares the punchlines, which is great credit to the deliciously amusing characters forged by Ulin, a longtime TV comedy writer whose past work includes “Roseanne,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Young Sheldon.”

There’s big pent-up demand in these fraught and artistically wimpy times for this kind of smart, safety-valve satire, especially since Ulin has created a character so happily evil he can express things a lot of people would like to say but feel they cannot even think them. They’ll all be chuckling away inside all night long and wondering about their chances of eternal life at the same time.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Judgment Day” (3.5 stars)

When: Through May 26

Where: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $57-$135 at 312-595-5600 and