×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

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.

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

Creative
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

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

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'Jesus Hopped the A Train'

More Legit

  • Stephen Sondheim's 'Follies' in the Works

    Stephen Sondheim's 'Follies' in the Works as a Movie From Heyday, BBC Films

    David Heyman’s Heyday Films, whose credits include “Gravity,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Marriage Story” and the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts franchises, and BBC Films have secured the film rights to Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical “Follies.” “Follies” will be adapted for the screen and directed by Dominic Cooke, a four-time Olivier [...]

  • Tina Turner The Musical

    How 'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical' Tells the Icon's Traumatic Story

    It wasn’t the response Tali Pelman had hoped to receive. The group creative managing director of Stage Entertainment had traveled to Küsnacht, Switzerland, with one goal in mind: Convince Tina Turner that her life could be the stuff of a successful stage musical. “We walked in the door,” Pelman remembers. “Tina was already there, and she greeted [...]

  • Ben McKenzie

    'Gotham' Star Ben McKenzie to Make Broadway Debut in 'Grand Horizons'

    “Gotham” star Ben McKenzie will make his Broadway debut in Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons.” He joins a cast that includes Oscar nominees Jane Alexander (“Kramer vs. Kramer,” “The Great White Hope”) and James Cromwell (“Babe,” “L.A. Confidential”). The show has a strictly limited 10-week run and begins previews on Dec. 23, 2019, before officially opening [...]

  • The Great Society review

    Listen: Brian Cox on 'Succession,' Shakespeare, and the Crisis We're In

    Brian Cox is having a pop-culture moment with “Succession,” the buzzy HBO series in which he stars. But he’s also an accomplished theater actor with plenty of experience doing Shakespeare — and it serves him well in both “Succession” and in his current Broadway show, “The Great Society.” Listen to this week’s podcast below: Cox [...]

  • Scooby Doo Ella Louise Allaire Martin

    Scooby-Doo Live Theater Tour Is Goofy Dane's Latest Adventure

    From its 1969 start as a Saturday morning kids mystery cartoon series “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” starring its titular, talking Great Dane and his four teenaged friends, has made adventure its staple. Once Hanna-Barbera’s successor, Warner Bros. Animation, took the leash, Scooby and company became a comic book, a board game, a series of video [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    'Tootsie' Ending Broadway Run in January

    “Tootsie,” the critically acclaimed musical adaptation of the 1982 classic film comedy, will play its final Broadway performance on Jan. 5, 2020. When it wraps up its run, the show will have logged 293 regular and 25 preview performances at the cavernous Marquis Theatre, where it sometimes labored to draw big crowds. Last week, “Tootsie” [...]

  • Laurel Griggs

    Laurel Griggs, Broadway and 'SNL' Actress, Dies at 13

    Laurel Griggs, who starred in Broadway’s “ONCE the Musical” as Ivanka, has died. She was 13. An obituary posted to Dignity Memorial indicates she died on Nov. 5, and Griggs’ grandfather wrote on Facebook that her death was due to a massive asthma attack. Griggs made her Broadway debut when she was six years old [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content