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The long dramatic tradition of charismatic and eloquent villains is on ample display in the 2000 work that put Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis (Between Riverside and Crazy, The Motherf—ker with the Hat) on the map. Infusing its familiar criminal justice system tropes with incisive characterizations and riveting dialogue, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train showcases a writer beginning to flex his creative muscles. The drama is now receiving a superbly acted revival at off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre that kicks off the playwright’s season residency.
Set in an outdoor yard at Riker’s Island, the play depicts the meeting of minds between Angel (Sean Carvajal), a 30-year-old bike messenger who shot the leader of a religious cult in the buttocks, and Lucius (Edi Gathegi), a serial killer dubbed “Black Plague,” awaiting extradition to Florida, where he’s to be executed for murdering eight people.
The two men, locked in adjoining single-occupancy metal cages like animals in a rundown zoo, have very different perspectives on their fates. As Angel tells his harried public defender (Stephanie DiMaggio), he had no intention of attempting to murder his victim, whose church he blames for having brainwashed his best friend. Angel soon finds himself charged with first degree murder when the preacher, who suffered only a minor wound, dies of complications during surgery to remove the bullet. In a hilarious rant to his lawyer, he blames “medical malpractice” for his current predicament.
Lucius, on the other hand, displays an inner peace that’s come as a result of his having recently found God. He displays a calm, philosophical attitude that isn’t ruffled even by the harsh treatment of sadistic prison guard Valdez (Ricardo Chavira). “That man is troubled, still searching for himself,” Lucius advises Angel. He also tells Valdez that “someone needs to give you a hug.” Valdez has replaced a previous guard, Charlie (Erick Betancourt), who was fired for performing such services for his notorious prisoner as providing him Oreo cookies.
The play’s high point comes late in the second act. It’s a scorching scene featuring the two prisoners in which Lucius calmly and dispassionately describes his murders and takes responsibility for his actions, urging Angel to do the same. He also sardonically observes that he didn’t get caught until he started killing white people.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train reveals a young playwright’s awkwardness with its overwritten passages and reliance on expository monologues. But it also displays incendiary passion and insight into its troubled characters, qualities that are fully realized in this riveting production staged by Mark Brokaw.
The two leads deliver superb performances: Carvajal, whose Angel is first seen attempting to recite a mangled version of “The Lord’s Prayer” as his fellow inmates shout him down, movingly conveys his character’s emotional desperation. And Gathegi, often delivering his dialogue while simultaneously performing rigorous exercise routines, oozes charisma as the self-possessed Lucius. (That their roles were originally played by John Ortiz and Ron Cephas Jones, in a Labyrinth Theatre Company production staged by Philip Seymour Hoffman, only makes their work here more impressive.)
The supporting players are a bit hamstrung by their characters’ stereotypical aspects but are solid nonetheless, with Betancourt particularly impressive in his low-key delivery of a monologue in which Charlie, the fired guard, describes witnessing a prisoner’s execution.
With its explosively profane dialogue and disturbing subject matter, the play is not for the faint-hearted. But for everyone else it remains a vital, pulsating drama by an ascending playwright whose early promise has been richly fulfilled.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Erick Betancourt, Sean Carvajal, Ricardo Chavira, Stephanie DiMaggio, Edi Gathegi
Playwright: Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director: Mark Brokaw
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting designer: Scott Zielinski
Sound designer: M.L. Dogg
Presented by Signature Theatre
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