Jesus hopped the A train indeed. Twice. Once when Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal) and his pal Joey were climbing through the subway tunnels because they were boys looking for adventure. One night their playtime went wrong and they froze when the train came rumbling at them. Something intervened and exploded them to safety - Jesus. Jesus had hopped the A Train to save them.
And now Jesus has been, you should pardon the expression, resurrected. The train on which He has hopped is running in full glorious throttle at Signature Theatre in this production (the first since it opened here in 2000) of Jesus Hopped The A Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis. This is the nearly operatic story of Angel and a fellow inmate, Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi) who share "the yard" of a special twenty-three-hour lockdown wing of protective custody on Rikers Island. Initially the area belongs to Lucius alone, and he spends every inch of his daily hour - caged of course - in gratitude and testament. When the sympathetic guard Charlie D'Amico (Eric Betancourt) is replaced by Valdez (Ricardo Chavira) - a mean man with too much time on his hands - Lucius is forced to regroup and stand down.
Enter Angel. Angel is in jail for assault that could turn into murder. His friend Joey has been subsumed into a cult (think Reverend Moon) and Angel tried to get Joey out with no help from anyone. It took 2 years of planning and the attempt backfired. Angel is not cut out for jail (who is?). His assigned attorney Mary Jane Hanrahan (Stephanie DiMaggio) has crossed her own boundary and become involved. Too involved.
Guirgis' writing here is spare and direct. It has the urgency of life and death. Lucius is awaiting extradition to Florida to take responsibility for the trail of bodies he left behind. Angel is awaiting trial - his first. The burdens of the outside world are crushing, and in the little time these two share outdoors in their separate cages shows the strain. Over the course of the evening these two travel light years. Initially Angel is a relief for Lucius. He is a casual play toy. Someone to impress, not to hurt. Someone to talk to. A human being in which he can invest some time, some knowledge, some philosophy. For Angel, Lucius is the only person he can talk to with no holds barred. Angel's lawyer is conditional, even though she is caring. His friend Joey is MIA. And Valdez? Well, Valdez is a cobra waiting for any old chance to strike.
Guirgis guides us through the switchback trails he has laid out with a steady hand. The waters boil and bubble, settle, and then rise again with ferocity. Angel and Lucius are stripped down to their souls and from this position they engage in a sort of hand to hand combat. The magic is that they take us with them. The lawyer-client scenes are a sort of sidebar that lets us into the very messy world of legal proceedings. Public defenders are like fish in a tank and their clients can feel the desperation. Our legal system is filled with people waiting for trial for months if not years with no formal charges having been placed.
Anyone who brushes up against the walls of the legal institution is wounded. Guirgis brings us in and slams the iron bars shut behind us. Unlike Angel and Lucius, however, we are granted the privilege of being sprung at the story's end. But we do not go gentle into that good night. We take these people and the arias that they have laid at our feet, out into the fresh air. We do not forget.
The performances are spot on in every way. No loose ends. Just clarity, precision and engagement. I questioned a few moments with Valdez and his blocking - something felt off. No matter. A special shout out to Carvajal and Gathegi, who were recent replacements (Carvajal less than 2 weeks). The amount of text they had to memorize and infuse with nuance and character is astonishing. They pulled it off and then some. And congrats to the rest of the cast for embracing these changes. Mark Brokaw's direction mirrors the writing in its simplicity and ease. This is one of those productions that makes you remember why you love the theatre - because it is transformative.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press said...
"A riveting revival... when performed, as it is here, by a cast that can recreate its rapture as well as its moral gravity, it achieves the doubleness of great art, burrowing deeper the higher it flies."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Signature Theatre’s revival, directed by Mark Brokaw, moves a bit uneasily. Carvajal, who replaced another actor during previews, does beautifully, but DiMaggio seems to be performing for a larger room, while Gathegi infuses Lucius with fervor but insufficient danger. And the rocky production reveals a certain stasis in the play."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"Superb performances enliven this scorching drama."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"Taut, terrific revival of this harrowing prison drama by Stephen Adly Guirgis is proof positive the playwright deserved his 2015 Pulitzer Prize."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...