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Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train

Angel: one time... one particular time, when we was holdin' hands right before we jumped off the rails, somethin' happened, and we couldn't let go, couldn't untangle ourself from each other, and we were inside that light, and... we both saw skeletons and radiation, and we was paralyzed in a way that I juss can't explain, till somethin' blew us apart, juss blew us, and we landed safe. We didn't move for a long time. We was cryin', and Joey ripped his brother's coat... We wasn't speakin' till we got to our block and Joey said that it was the light that ripped us apart and saved our lives... Joey said, "Jesus hopped the A train to see us safe to bed."
Mary Jane (his lawyer): Well, you're on an A train right now, Angel, and if there's a Jesus on board it's me.
Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train
S. Carvajal, R. Chavira and E. Gathegi (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Sometimes, context means something, and sometimes it doesn't. The last time I reviewed this play (please have a look at the link to the original because I am not repeating everything), Stephen Adly Guirgis was an unknown playwright, and I ran out of superlatives for his remarkable play and its cast. Since then, he has managed (among much else) a series of additional (and exceptional) collaborations with the original director of Jesus, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, under the auspices of their LAByrinth Theater; a Broadway debut; and, most recently, a Pulitzer Prize.

The play still warrants all of the praise I heaped on it then. In retrospect, it was not the tentative work of a newbie finding his bearings, but the full-throttled, confident and adept work of a young writer of immense talent. It stands tall next to all of his work that has followed (not to mention that of a boatload of other writers), and it's great that Signature now gives his work the illumination in all directions that it deserves.

Getting this production off the ground has been a challenge. The two actors caged in the photo above are the core of the play: Sean Carvajal as Angel Cruz, the bike messenger who shot a cult leader in the ass because he had ensnared Angel's best friend in his "religion," and Edi Gathegi as Lucius Jenkins, a brutal murderer who found religion on his way to the executioner. Gathegi replaced an actor who left the production shortly before rehearsals; then the actor playing Angel was forced to withdraw from the show just as previews were starting, and Carvajal stepped in. This does not sound like a recipe for success, especially in a show in which I had described the original pair as "spectacular, as impressive as any you are likely to see on any stage." I am not going to hold Gathegi and Carvajal up to comparison, but they are both remarkably good, and not just in light of the circumstances. These actors bring their own selves to their roles, and both performances are compelling.

The truth is, it's the play that's compelling, and the fine actors are wonderful stewards of Guirgis's words. I'm delighted to have an opportunity to revisit this play after seventeen years; anyone who wants to understand why Guirgis earned all of the honors he has received should pay it a visit as well.

The two guards are less central, but fertilize Guirgis's bigger themes in ways that I don't think I fully appreciated the first time around. Ricardo Chavira's larger role, the wholly unpleasant Valdez ("If you do not fuck with me, Mr. Superstar, I can guarantee you a garden-variety miserable existence. But if you do decide to fuck with me--ever--I will show you a world where mere misery is like toasting marshmallows 'round the campfire in your long johns") constructs a wall of personal morality that plays in counterpoint to that of the other (nice) guard, Charlie (Erick Betancourt). Charlie's return toward the end of the play delivers a punch to the gut, and this contrast in turn interplays with the pas de deux of Lucius and Angel. But this play strikes me as more of an opera than a ballet.

The final aria in this opera is the public defender, Mary Jane (Stephanie DiMaggio), who was appointed to represent Angel. This remains the one element of the play, both substantively and structurally, that seems out of whack with everything else. A lot of what we hear from the lawyer is in the form of direct address, and these monologues lack the poetry (brute or not) of the rest. Much of it also seems unneeded and diverting. Ms. DiMaggio executes what she's given well. We are not really supposed to like her, and we don't.

The design elements are unforgiving in a way that perfectly conveys why none of us want to go to prison. Riccardo Hernandez's sharp angled set (what is shown is an outdoor area in which the inmates are allowed only one hour a day -- we can assume the other 23 hours are even worse) is married with Scott Zielinski's harsh light (even in the outdoors on a sunny day, it is not very inviting) and M.L. Dogg's clangy, unsoothing sound design. I suppose Dede M. Ayite's apt costumes offer a bit of relief from the relentless grayness, but not much. It's all of a piece, directed with a careful but light hand by Mark Brokaw, and it seems unlikely one will ever get very comfortable in any aspect of this world.

That said, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is not a hard play to watch, because its intensity is lightened with lots of humor and its nuanced themes keep one too engaged to leave time for much outside the play. It also whets the audiences appetite for more Guirgis that Signature has promised.

The original review.
Most of us have hopped on the A Train at one time or another, but far fewer of us have taken the Q101. That's the bus that traverses Queens, heading north until it reaches Riker's Island. It is there that playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, director Philip Seymour Hoffman and a super-fine cast of five take us in this exceptional new play. But lest you think that will be the only unfamiliar territory on display, think again: Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train ventures into the terra incognita of contemporary American theater -- theatrical and intellectual waters for which others lack the temerity or strength to tread. 

It's not that A Train doesn't make the usual station stops for prison dramas. It does. What's significant here is where it transports us from there. How many plays have you seen lately that confront issues of faith, morality and the essential nature of what it is to be a man without drowning in their own expansiveness? Guirgis's masterly achievement (not without fault, see below) is that he not only negotiates these broad themes, but that he is able to layer his story with equal parts humor and passion, and without becoming didactic, precious, sentimental or any of those other things we hate but see so often. 

Angel (John Ortiz) and Lucius (Ron Cephas Jones) are in lock-down, spending all but one hour a day in their cells. That hour they spend outdoors "together", albeit in separate chain-link cages. Lucius is a serial killer awaiting extradition to Florida for execution; he has found God. Angel is a rough but essentially good young man awaiting trial for shooting a religious cult leader who got his grip around Angel's best friend. He didn't intend for the man to die -- his defense is that he shot him in the ass -- but he did. Confused, traumatized and filled with rage, Angel doesn't know himself, much less God.

The principal interest here is in these characters: the steadfast Lucius and the searchingly anxious Angel. Both performances are spectacular, as impressive as any you are likely to see on any stage. At one point, Angel tells Lucius he is "cool." The older inmate reacts emphatically: be hot ("blazin'" or be cold ("freezin'"), he insists, but don't be cool. It's an aesthetic director Hoffman takes to heart, unrelentingly removing the cooling insulation from the alternating current of red-hot and blue-cold (but always live) theatrical wires. 

We feel the heat as Ortiz, more at one with Angel than one imagines possible, intensely screams lines as if truth is somehow correlated with decibel level. It's an exhausting effort, almost as much for audience as actor, but it pays off immeasurably. Here we have a conflicted young man, craving definitions, and finding few. Although it leaves our penchant for resolution unsatisfied, it's to Guirgis's credit that he resists positing any. 

In the other corner we have Lucius, his self-reconciliation coldly repelling any sense of wretchedness, freezing out, as it were, any horrific evil that predates his re-birth. Although less extravagant than Ortiz's performance, and generally quieter, it is no less brilliant. His is an effort marked by chilling calibration, a veneer that occludes in its absoluteness what may reside beneath. 

The play's other three characters are necessarily less significant, but nonetheless important. Two are guards: Charlie D'Amico (Salvatore Inzerillo), who becomes Lucius's friend -- so much so that he attends his execution in Florida -- and Valdez (David Zayas), anything but a friend. While Inzerillo's brief appearances add a bit of poignancy -- and perhaps balance -- to the play, Zayas adds a sharp, discomfiting edge, a persuasively intractable blend of Inspector Javert and the typical New York City traffic cop who has been sent simply to keep traffic flowing but imagines the assigned intersection as a miniature fiefdom. 

The final character is Mary Jane Hanrahan (Elizabeth Canavan), Angel's assigned defense attorney, with whom he has a cantankerous but ultimately bonding relationship that ultimate serves neither well. It also doesn't serve the play well. Both substantively and dramaturgically, it is the weakest link -- no fault of Ms. Canavan, who performs precisely as asked to do. Relying heavily on the attorney's direct address monologues, the entire subject seems to be one Guirgis feels the need to include, but never finds a way to integrate. 

No matter. The effects of the positives here so far outweigh the disappointments, they could never dislodge the excitement. We don't rate productions. If we did (and being precluded from labeling it "cool"), I'd give it a "wow."
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman
with John Ortiz, Elizabeth Canavan, Salvatore Inzerillo, Ron Cephas Jones, David Zayas
Set Design: Narelle Sissons
Lighting Design: Sarah Sidman
Costume Design: Mimi O'Donnell
Original Music and Sound Design: Eric DeArmon
Opened 11/29/2000 6 weeks only

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Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Cast: Erick Betancourt, Sean Carvajal, Ricardo Chavira, Stephanie DiMaggio, Edi Gathegi.
Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, with an intermission
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St (9/10 Avs.)
Opening 10/23/17, closing 11/26/17; $30. Regular prices from 11/26/17 to extended closing, 12/03/17.
Reviewed by Les Gutman at 10/20/17 performance

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