Friday, October 27, 2017

93 (2017-2018): Review: JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN (seen October 26, 2017)

“A Shot in the Ass”

If, like me, you remember the critical hoopla surrounding the original production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Labyrinth Theatre in 2000 but were unable to hop on the A or whatever train to catch it during its brief local run—or in any of its later incarnations elsewhere—I’d advise you to swipe your MetroCard and rumble over to W. 42nd Street for its gripping revival at the Signature Theatre.

Sean Carvajal, Ricardo Chavira, Edi Gathegi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Originally directed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and now in the potent hands of Mark Brokaw, the play sets us down mainly in the “23-hour lockdown wing of protective custody on Rikers Island.” The principal image—smartly designed by Riccardo Hernandez, coolly lit by Scott Zielinski, and aurally augmented by M.L. Dogg—is a cinderblock room with two metal cages alongside each other. This is where the most dangerous prisoners are placed, one to each cage, for an hour of daily sunlight and exercise. 

Edi Gathegi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jesus, in two acts running two hours and 10 minutes, is a powerful drama, laced with biting humor. It not only shines a blazing light on the judicial and correctional systems but embraces deeply thoughtful themes of masculinity, faith, guilt, remorse, and responsibility. The chief characters in this five-character drama are Latino Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal) and African American Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi). Both actors of these roles were late replacements—in Carvajal’s case, when previews were beginning—making their accomplishments all the more remarkable

Angel, a bike messenger, is imprisoned after shooting Reverend Kim, a cult leader who ensnared his close friend. Insisting he didn’t intend to kill Kim--who eventually dies of “complications”--because he merely shot him “in the ass,” he struggles to accept the moral consequences of his action. Enraged at his situation, he lashes out at the tough but fair-minded public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Stephanie DiMaggio), assigned to his case, who eventually suffers for her involvement. In one of her richest scenes she instructs her client in how to lie. 
Erick Betancourt, Edi Gathegi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Angel’s principal antagonist, though, is Lucius, occupying the lockdown cell next to his. Lucius killed eight people and is anticipating extradition to Florida, where the death sentence awaits. When the sweet-natured guard Charlie D’Amico (Erick Betancourt), who treats Lucius kindly, is fired and replaced by the sadistic Valdez (Ricardo Chavira)—who has a frighteningly particular take on God and morality—Lucius’s life becomes even more hellish. He overcomes his despair, however, by a newfound faith in Jesus and knowledge of the Bible (displayed by a memory feat in which he names each book of the New Testament) that allows him to rise above his suffering. 

The frightened Angel, with no patience for Lucius’s arguments about God, engages in voluble arguments with him. These profanity-laced quarrels, while perhaps suggesting a level of verbal and educational achievement incompatible with these men’s backgrounds, are nonetheless among the most fascinating and engrossing on any New York stage. I kept thinking of how the elderly, distinguished-looking, white-collared priest near me was responding.

Gradually, Angel begins to come to terms not only with God but with an appreciation of what he’s done, while Lucius, who has found his own way of assuming responsibility, is fully prepared to meet his maker.

All the performances are superb, DiMaggio hitting a home run as the sympathetic but scrappy lawyer, Chavira being every inch the cop you love to hate, and Betancourt his perfect counterpart as the one you have to love.

Carvajal and Gathegi give tour-de-force portrayals. They combine outsized acting, vocal power and flexibility, physical vitality, and the ability to exhibit emotions on both grand and subtle scales. Carvajal finds the anger, confusion, and fear in Angel’s heart, while Gathegi makes Lucius’s religious strength so palpable, even when being demeaned by Valdez, you find yourself sympathizing with this showboating serial killer.
Sean Carvajal. Photo: Joan Marcus
Giurgis’s dramaturgy is of the increasingly common variety that relies extensively on direct-address monologues to divulge background information. Theatre, unlike fiction, is typically a form in which action is dramatized, not described, unless the material—like a dramatic adaptation of a novel—is so complex there’s no way to avoid narrative exposition. This aside, Giurgis’s writing, matched by exceptional acting, is so commanding, I can only hope audiences will be hopping the A train with (or without) Jesus to embrace it. 


Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 26