“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” arrives at the 13th Street Theater with all the trappings of a grass-roots Off Broadway hit: a dollop of street credibility in the person of its brooding leading man, John Ortiz (the founder of the Labyrinth Theater); a pinch of indie movie glamour in the shambling form of director Philip Seymour Hoffman; and the kind of advance buzz for which many a small theater company would gladly sacrifice life and limb. Unfortunately, despite the best intentions and a sincere attempt to realize ambitious goals, the play doesn’t make the big-time payoff.
Playwright Stephen Aldy Guirgis has sporadic success with his attempt to fashion a metaphysical prison drama set on Riker’s Island, but his excesses are augmented by Hoffman’s sledgehammer direction. Scene after scene is pitched at a decibel level that would make Yoko Ono hoarse.
Among the cast, only the sly and jazzy Ron Cephas Jones manages to survive the overwrought production intact. Playing the charismatic older convict, Lucius — a self-proclaimed child of god who has killed six people — Jones is a live coal onstage.
He projects a grooviness turned dry and brittle, making each glowing ember of Lucius’ emotional life palpable. In short, his scenes fly. When Jones is onstage, the play has a compulsive watchability it lacks at other times.
In the central role of Angel Cruz, John Ortiz lets loose with a bushel and a peck of wailing as a prison neophyte — a sort of curly-haired waif in wolf’s clothing.
Angel comes to Riker’s by way of a violent blunder, having shot a cult leader in the rear end. This turn of events is milked by the author for every jot of raucous humor, but it has serious consequences for the incarcerated Angel when his victim subsequently dies on the operating table.
In a heated meeting with his lawyer, Angel touts his motive — none too convincingly — as an act of friendship. Apparently, his oldest buddy has been brainwashed by the cult’s flashy reverend and Angel sees his violent act as a kind of righteous man’s justice against false gods. Even less credibly, the young female public defender assigned to his case becomes obsessed with securing his exoneration at all costs.
Prison melodrama is, of course, a staple of television drama, and Guirgis plays against the grain of cliche by making his characters privy to the joke (Angel tries to fire his lawyer at first glimpse because she reminds him more of Wilma Flintstone than Perry Mason).
On the other hand, there’s very little that’s light-hearted or spry about the play’s awkward exposition. It is freighted by an overload of pseudo-profundity; characters upbraiding each other about the Ultimate Questions can make for rather dreary stagecraft.
The two most heavy-handed characterizations are Valdez, the sadistic prison guard who munches Cheetos while tormenting his men (played with bluster by David Zayas), and the lawyer, Mary Jane Hanraham (Elizabeth Canavan), whose monologues are thudding enough to stretch the powers of a far more accomplished actress.
Yet just when “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” has one fumbling in one’s pockets for the subway token that will spirit one home, Jones shows up on his side of the prison yard.
Whether he’s jogging in place, doing the spindliest sit-ups you’ve ever seen, or shooting off his homespun prophecies with a kind of lucid madness, his Lucius is an inspired creation. If the rest of the production shared his effortless animation, it might have been a train trip to remember.