By Stephen Adly Guirgis; Directed by Mark Brokaw
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 11.26.17
Signature Theatre Center, 480 West 42rd Street
by Ran Xia on 10.28.17
Sean Carvajal, Ricardo Chavira, and Edi Gathegi in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: A tale of two inmates: Stephen Adly Guirgis' furiously funny and gut-wrenching masterpiece sheds light on the impossible dilemma of justice and repentance.
Here is Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal) on his first night in jail: too rattled to remember even the simplest prayer to calm himself down. It’s dark and quiet, and Angel would seem to be alone with his faith—but no. The other inmates, eager to tuck in, have not a shred of patience for this “new kid on the block” and his determination to get his prayer right. Thus in the most comical way, a cacophony of “shut the fuck up” starts the play, a breathtaking two-hour feat of humanity at its most relentless sincerity.
Stephen Adly Guirgis is one of those writers who possesses the rare and astonishing magic of not only transporting us into a tale far more complex than any one single theme, but in doing so by means of characters who engage us within seconds. With this opening scene, Angel is immediately sympathetic. You feel bad for him, and you wonder—what did he do to get here anyway? What malevolent force could have snatched this 30-year-old bike messenger from the streets of New York, imprisoning him in an ominous metal cage at Riker’s?
Enter public defender Mary Jane Hanrahan (Stephanie DiMaggio). Lawyer and prisoner get off to a rough start with a clash of their equally big personalities. Angel’s reluctance to cooperate and general inability to articulate what happened doesn’t help either. Nevertheless, the earnest Angel moves his lawyer just like he moves the rest of us, and Hanrahan begins to question the dilemma between what’s just and what’s right.
And here’s Lucius “Lu” Jenkins (Edi Gathegi), sharing a smoke with his BFF, prison guard Charlie (Erick Betancourt), during his daily hour of outdoor time. Charlie brings Lu Oreos and compliments his workout routines; Lu asks about Charlie’s wife and offers to pray for his buddy in uniform. They share a laugh and agree that you gotta love the sun. Then it’s all different: Charlie loses his job, leaving Lu with Valdez (Ricardo Chavira), the “bad cop” guard who almost seems to take pride in his cruelty. And once you find out just why Lucius is imprisoned, you might begin to ask yourself: is it wrong to still find him likable?
As Angel’s case escalates, the two inmates’ life stories become intertwined by proximity during their hour outside. The odds are stacked against both men in this broken system, where extenuating circumstances, environmental context, and righteous motives all become irrelevant. Just as the lines between right and wrong become blurred to the point of absurdity, the jury’s still out when it comes to the trial of faith. Even if human and societal laws forgive something, how much repentance does one need to reach a final resolution?
Even with its grim subject matter, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is ferociously funny. Director Mark Brokaw stays true to the story and lets each character speak candidly to the audience. There are no superfluous stylistic choices, nor any theatrical “accessories” to distract us from Guirgis' text. The result is an earnest and triumphant production without a single dull moment.
Much kudos to the team of superb performers as well, especially Carvajal and Gathegi, who maintain palpable chemistry while in prison cells 20 feet apart, each masterfully carrying out subtle shifts within these two drastically different characters. Also noteworthy is Riccardo Hernandez’s symmetrical set. Precise and effective, it's minimal and perfect: a pair of identical cages occupies the stage, no additional brushstrokes wasted. Nothing is romanticized, and the straight lines and sharp edges make at least one thing clear: this is certainly not a play about trivial things.
(Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train plays at the Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, through November 26, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 15 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2 and 7:30. Tickets are $30 through November 12, $55 beginning November 14, and are available at signaturetheatre.org.)
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Scenic Design is by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume Design is by Dede M. Ayite. Lighting Design is by Scott Zielinski. Sound Design is by M.L. Dogg. Dialect Coach is Deborah Hecht. Production Stage Manager is Linda Marvel.
The cast is Erick Betancourt, Ricardo Chavira, Stephanie DiMaggio, Edi Gathegi, and Sean Carvajal.