Critics Pick

Off Broadway Review: ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’

Taut, terrific revival of this harrowing prison drama by Stephen Adly Guirgis is proof positive the playwright deserved his 2015 Pulitzer Prize.

Jesus Hopped the A Train
Joan Marcus

Some prisoners go out of their minds when confined to the 23-hour isolation wing of Rikers Island prison. In the Signature Theater revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Jesus Hopped the A Train,” Angel Cruz, played in a painfully sensitive performance by Sean Carvajal, tries his best to pray.

But the words escape him, and his halting efforts are hooted down by his fellow inmates on murderers’ row. So Lucius Jenkins (a drop-dead-cold performance from Edi Gathegi), who murdered eight people at last count, assumes the role of a charismatic preacher man to spout his personal philosophy of life – and death, too, of course.

These two men are at the center of this intense prison drama, first performed Off Broadway in 2000. Their only daily human interaction is with two prison guards, kindly Charlie D’Amato (Erick Betancourt, all smiles) and hard-nosed Valdez (Ricardo Chavira, full of bile). And once in a while Angel gets a visit from his harried public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Stephanie DiMaggio, wearing her heart on her sleeve). But if there’s one thing their steel-barred isolation cells (designed without mercy by Riccardo Hernandez) do extremely well, it’s convey a bleak sense of utter isolation.

Guirgis, who won his Pulitzer Prize for “Between Riverside and Crazy” and made his Broadway debut with “The Motherf—er with the Hat,” is the go-to guy for riveting monologues and choice dialogue exchanges. Even a heartless bully like Valdez sounds impressive when he’s talking to the walls.  “People go through life discarding things, tangible and intangible, replaceable and priceless,” he says, with a wealth of wisdom acquired by working for the Department of Sanitation. “What people do not understand is that once they have discarded an irreplaceable item, it is lost forever.”

It doesn’t take much of a stretch to think of all the discarded lives languishing in the prison cells on Rikers Island. Although hardly a flaming diatribe against the criminal justice system, “Jesus Hopped the A Train” makes a strong case for the sheer dehumanization of incarceration.

The author’s one-line zingers are just as pointed than his longer and more reasoned arguments on faith and redemption.  “All I did was shoot him in the ass,” Angel complains to his lawyer, outraged that he’s charged with murder because the charlatan faith healer (a Reverend Moon look-alike) happened to die during routine surgery to remove the lead.

“Television’s the number-one narcotic we got going on up here in America – keeps a man idle and stupid,” says the super-articulate Lucius, explaining why he turned down an offer to appear in a crime show on Court TV.

In another instance, “This is not Jellystone Park and I am not a Park Ranger,” Valdez spits out, warning Lucius and Angel that he’s no soft-hearted pushover like Charlie D’Amico (whose name, by the way, means “friend”).

Behind his studiously cool façade, Lucius is seriously worried about being extradited to Florida, where the odds are good that he’ll be executed for his multiple homicides. To hide from his fears, Lucius has escaped into the punishing self-discipline of intense physical workouts and the comforts of religion. His conversion isn’t altogether convincing, but it yields some bone-cracking arguments for the healing powers of religious faith.  “Deliver me from evil, Lord,” he prays during his workouts. “Lord, deliver me from me!”

Lucius is a ball of coiled tension in Gathegi’s dangerous performance. His world has shrunk to a cement block where he can perform his grueling physical exercises and mouth off. He sounds genial, but that keen, intelligent expression in his eyes occasionally gives over to something cold and hard. Bouncing around on the balls of his feet, he tries to wise up Angel in the ways of 23-hour lockdown.  “You oughta be enjoyin’ this sun while you can feel it, brother. Don’t come out but one hour a day for us up here. One hour. I take my hour, too.  I take my hour and you should, too!”

Carvajal’s performance hovers on the edge of Angel’s tipping point. Believing in his righteous cause – he took a pop at the evangelist preacher who “captured” his friend, Joey, by initiating him into his religious cult – he thinks the law locked up the wrong person. “How many Sons of God you know drive a Lexus?” he challenges Mary Jane.  “Or got million-dollar stock portfolios? Or go skiing in Aspen?” Angel has got his values straight; it’s the rest of the world that’s out of whack.

Director Mark Brokaw (“Heisenberg”) has spring-wound this production so that taking too long a breath means missing something. Voices are so well orchestrated they’re as complementary as the colors of a painting.  Lucius is red — hot and always in danger of bursting into flames. Angel is blue — shifting shades from a deep, dark, moody blue to a pale blue that opens to the sky. Charlie is pure white and it’s horrid to imagine that pure heart being sullied. And Valdez, well, he’s a black-hearted thug who boasts that he prays to the devil – and just might mean it.

Except for that brief hour in the sun (thank lighting designer Scott Zielinski for bathing Lucius’s sweating face in a patina of gold), it’s a monotonous existence and eerily quiet, here in lockdown, far removed from the noisy racket of the general prison population. (Credit M.L. Dogg for creating the sounds of silence.)  All you can really hear is the thundering heartbeat of each man’s fear.

Off Broadway Review: ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’
Signature Theater; 294 seats; $65 top. Opened Oct. 23, 2017. Reviewed Oct. 20. Running time: TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.

A Signature Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Stephen Adly Guirgis.

Directed by Mark Brokaw. Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Dede M. Ayite; lighting, Scott Zielinski; sound, M.L. Dogg; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; wigs & makeup, Cookie Jordan; production stage manager, Linda Marvel

Erick Betancourt, Sean Carvajal, Ricardo Chavira, Stephanie DiMaggio, Edi Gathegi