Although dealing with the consequences—perhaps deserved, perhaps not—heaped upon two murderers, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is not without its humor and, in fact, opens with the hilariously nerve-wracking scene of new prisoner Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal, in a moving, multi-dimensional performance) trying hard to remember the Lord’s Prayer and mucking it up to his blistering frustration as the anger of a fellow prisoner rises in shouts of “Shut the f**k up!”
Guirgis and Brokaw manage to find the back-handed humor and pathos of this scene which sets the mood for a profane and scatological play that hits the audience between the eyes with its fresh use of language and its deep understanding of the two main characters. Guirgis turns profanity into a poetic x-ray of the human psyche.
Set in a special 23-hour lockdown wing of Rikers Island, Jesus follows Angel and fellow prisoner Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi, alternately chilling and heartbreaking), a serial killer who claims to have found God.
They are subject to close-to-sadistic treatment by correction officer Valdez (a chilling Ricardo Chavira) who is assigned these two felons after the kinder, more easygoing C.O. Charlie D’Amico (Erick Betancourt, making the most of a one-scene role) is removed for fraternizing with Lucius. Valdez rationalizes his verbal and physical abuses with a tale about a killer who deserved to die in prison getting off to freely roam the Bronx.
Angel is assigned public defender Mary Jane Hanrahan (Stephanie DiMaggio who turns this character’s internal conflicts into a fully realized portrait) whose commitment to Angel’s case leads to tragic consequences.
The play becomes a roller coaster of ups and downs as Angel and Lucius’ repartee gets deeper and deeper without ever truly making it clear that Lucius’ religious conversion is real or disingenuous. Hope is offered both and abruptly withdrawn.
Angel is behind bars for attacking the leader of a religious cult, a man whom he believes kidnapped his best friend. Angel inflicted injuries that eventually killed the cultist, an act which Angel believed to be defensible, while Lucius intentionally and coldly murdered at least eight people for no reason at all.
Guirgis ingeniously pits these two against each other: the naïve Angel with the corrupt Lucius, their names cleverly telling much about them. Is their guilt equal? Should they be punished with equal vigor? Guirgis gives you much to ponder and almost too much emotion to absorb at one sitting.
Riccardo Hernandez’ stark set of two cells that appear to be floating in the midst of a no man’s land is totally appropriate, allowing the words to shine. Dede M. Ayite’s dark prison outfits, the lawyer’s cheap-looking suits and C.O. uniforms also help tell the story. Scott Zielinski’s lighting keeps the stark set interesting.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (through December 3, 2017)
The Pershing Square Signature Center
Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission