Last year, Rob Ulin branched out of his usual routine of writing TV scripts into writing for the stage. The veteran writer for shows like “Roseanne,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” and “Ramy” crafted his first play, “Judgment Day,” on the dual moral and spiritual crises of Sammy (Jason Alexander), a corrupt lawyer scared straight by an angel (Patti LuPone) into good behavior, and Father Michael, a priest (Santino Fontana) who’s losing his faith. Although Ulin’s theatrical vision underwent significant changes because of the pandemic, he still secured an all-star cast that includes LuPone, Alexander, Fontana, Michael McKean, Justina Machado, Loretta Devine, Elizabeth Stanley, and others. Now, the Newton-born Harvard grad will open his show for a limited virtual run Saturday through Tuesday as a benefit for the Barrington Stage Company and the Actors Fund. Ulin spoke with the Globe about the move to a virtual theater space and helping theater companies through difficult times.
Q. How did “Judgment Day” take shape?
A. I didn’t know what it was gonna be at first. It could have been a pilot. It could have been a movie. And then, little by little it became clear it would work best as a play. I did not envision an online play because that didn’t even exist when I started. What we’re trying to put together is something really terrific, but no matter what, there’s no substitute for seeing it live on stage. I would still very much like for it to have a life as a theater piece when we get out from under this full time.
Q. What was the inspiration for the story?
A. It started with the idea of a really heartless, selfish [expletive] who is scared into doing good deeds because he becomes persuaded that he will burn in hell forever if he doesn’t. I was just like, that’ll be funny, watching a guy begrudgingly have to do nice things for people. And then, little by little, I was working on it. I came upon the idea that doing good things, helping your fellow man does change a person. That was the first piece of it. There’s another character in it, a Catholic priest, who is a very good person who is having a crisis of faith. His life intersects with Sammy, and the two of them wind up helping each other in an unlikely way.
Q. How did you assemble such an all-star cast?
A. It’s incredible. It’s really just beyond my dreams. I got the play to Jason in November 2019. He read it and sent me an e-mail. He was very complimentary and encouraging, but his schedule was so busy he didn’t think he’d be able to do it in the foreseeable future. And then the quarantine happens. I wrote to him again and I said, “Hey, I bet you’re not so busy anymore.” And he wrote back and said, “Yeah, I guess I could do this.” Once Jason was on board that changed everything, and everyone became quite enthusiastic. Then Patti read the script and liked it. Once she signed on, that was a real game changer. Then, I think everybody else was quite interested in joining.
With actors at this level, you don’t need a huge amount of rehearsal. They know what they’re doing. I think everybody who came to this hadn’t worked in a while. Everybody just loves getting back to work and doing something fun. I got so many notes from people afterwards saying, “I had a blast.” I certainly had a blast just watching them.
Q. Despite not being able to give “Judgment Day” its in-person run, how does it feel to open your show virtually?
A. Maybe more people will see it this way, which is exciting. I hope we raise a ton of money for the Barrington [Stage Company] and for The Actors Fund. They’re both really important causes, and theaters are having such a hard time these days. We can help keep them afloat with something like this. I’m thrilled to be able to participate in that way. But also, hopefully, this will inspire some producer out there to put it on stage. I’d love to bring it to Boston. That would be a blast.
Interview has been edited and condensed. Email Monica Castillo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Online reading to benefit Barrington Stage Company and the Actors Fund. Play by Rob Ulin. Directed by Matthew Penn. Aug. 22-25. Donation of $35 or more requested. www.barringtonstageco.org/judgmentday