Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train by Les gutman
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."