Two killers in adjoining prison cages face off about God in this killer revival of one of the earliest plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis, the streetwise New York playwright of such acclaimed recent dramas as the Pulitzer-winning Between Riverside and Crazy and Broadway’s The M-F With the Hat. Foul-mouthed funny and intense and thought-provoking, the play is a promising start to Guirgis’ 2017-2018 “residency” at New York’s Signature Theatre.
Jesus Hopped The A Train begins and ends with a prayer, and God is everywhere in between, but the play is no simple testament to faith, far from it. It seems to be asking whether some people are better off without it.
Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal) is the one trying to recite the Lord’s Prayer as the play opens, but he’s botching it, forgetting the word “Hallowed” – “Howard? How art? Howled?” — while unseen fellow inmates loudly and crudely tell him to shut up. Angel (the name can be no accident) is a 30-year-old bicycle messenger. He’s in jail, as he’s told by his appointed public defender Mary Jane (Stephanie DiMaggio) for attempted murder.
Angel is shocked: “All I did was shoot him in the ass.”
The person he shot, Reverend Kim, is the head of a religious cult, who claims to be the Son of God. Angel was disgusted by the man’s wealth and hypocrisy (“How many Sons of God you know drive a Lexus?”) but he took it personally because Joey, Angel’s best friend since childhood, had joined the cult. Angel spent two years trying to get Joey back, even hiring kidnappers and a deprogrammer, but it didn’t work.
To his lawyer, Angel was making a “statement” by then shooting Rev. Kim, intending to cause minimal harm. “He made a foolish, perilous statement, but it was a statement,” his lawyer says in a monologue. “I find honor in that.”
But then, during the simple operation to remove the bullet, there are complications, the Rev Kim has a heart attack and dies.
While waiting at Riker’s Island for his trial, Angel is put in protective custody, and for one hour a day is placed in a cage in the prison yard next to the cage occupied by an older inmate named Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi.)
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Lucius is a devout Christian who tries to put Angel at ease. He eventually tells Angel why he’s in prison. He killed a pizza delivery boy because the boy opened up the door to let the sunshine in – “I think that was a very unusual thing for me to do, killing that boy, don’t you?” – and then over time killed seven more people before he was caught. He found God in prison: “I was forty-two; a suicidal, multiple homicidal drug addict starin’ down at Death Row! Would I have preferred to find him at twenty-five? Hell yeah!”
Each character in Jesus Hopped the A Train gets their own monologues, including the two guards, one Charlie (Erick Betancourt) decent to a fault, the other Valdez (Ricardo Chavira) sadistic from what he indicates is a sense of moral outrage – which is another way that the playwright is asking us to consider the complicated interplay between morality and decency. We learn of Mary Jane’s motivations and her dilemmas. We follow Angel’s criminal case though a judicial system that the playwright clearly does not admire. But the core of Guirgis’ play is the interaction between the two killers, which amounts, at times, to a spiritual debate – Angel is ambivalent about religion — at other times to a comedy routine.
“You’re cool,” Angel tells Lucius at one point. Lucius is outraged:
“Be anything you wanna be in this life, son, be a damn atheist, arsonist, lowlife, heretic, Antichrist, politician, cable TV installer, any kinda general miscreant tickles your T-bone. But doncha ever be cool!”
There are indications this production experienced a rough rehearsal period. Performances were delayed after the two initially-cast leads both dropped out, Reg E. Cathey as Lucius reportedly due to “personal conflicts,” Victor Rasuk as Angel a couple of weeks later reportedly due to “personal reasons.” Both of these are marquee names whose performances I’ve long admired. I don’t recall seeing Sean Carvajal or Edi Gathergi on stage before, which makes their impressive, visceral performances a nice surprise, all the more so given their abbreviated rehearsal time.
These are roles that call for a ferocity that is always watchable, but not always easy to listen to. If their fervor in this production escalates too often into unrestrained shouting, that’s on Mark Brokaw, a prolific director best-known for comedies and musicals (Cry-Baby,The Lyons, Cinderella.)
It’s bracing to remember that Jesus Hopped The A Train was originally a production of the LABrynth Theatre Company, directed in 2000 by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who knew how to charge full throttle on stage without ever losing control.
Jesus Hopped The A Train is on stage at the Signature Theatre Center (480 W 42nd St, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, New York, NY 10036) through November 19, 2017. Tickets and details
Jesus Hopped the A Train Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Mark Brokaw. Riccardo Hernandez (Scenic Design), Dede M. Ayite(Costume Design), Scott Zielinski (Lighting Design), M.L. Dogg (Sound Design). Featuring Sean Carvajal, Ricardo Chavira, Erick Betancourt, Stephanie DiMaggio, Edi Gathegi. Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell