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Theatre in Review: Jesus Hopped the A Train (Signature Theatre Company)

Edi Gathegi, Ricardo Chavira. Photo: Joan Marcus

At least three very different definitions of justice engage in open battle in Jesus Hopped the A Train, and it's a war without winners. This fascinating, troubling drama begins on a bleakly hilarious note, with a young man, Angel Cruz, facing his first night in Manhattan's notorious prison, The Tombs, on his knees, desperately praying. That this isn't his usual posture becomes clear with his opening words: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, Howard be thy name...." Even as he tries to puzzle his way through the holy words, Angel is heckled, loudly and profanely, by the rest of the prison population. As it happens, he will need a much more practical kind of assistance than this halting attempt at piety to get out of the jam he's in.

Angel, who has more passion than brains, is being held for attempted murder; his victim, Reverend Kim, ran a Moonie-like cult that brainwashed Angel's closest friend. An attempt at deprogramming ended in failure, and Angel, frustrated over the wasted money and effort, struck back, shooting Reverend Kim in the rear end. Unfortunately, he did so in front of dozens of witnesses. Even more unfortunately, the charge was upgraded to homicide when Reverend Kim died after complications from surgery.

So guileless is Angel that, meeting with Mary Jane Hanrahan, his appointed public defender, who informs him of the murder rap, he spits out a confession. ("All I did was shoot him in the ass!") Mary Jane, fed up after only a few minutes, quickly flees, pointing out that his admission nullifies her ability to represent him because, if she put him on the stand, she would be suborning perjury, for which she could be disbarred.

Then again, Mary Jane can't quite let Angel go. Scarred by years spent as a scholarship student in a posh East Side girls' school and haunted by the memory of her hard-drinking, quick-on-the-draw father, she starts having dangerous thoughts: Isn't Reverend Moon's cult a terrible thing? Of course, the shooting was, technically, a crime, but wasn't it also an act of personal honor? Suddenly, a case that seemed hopeless is reinvented as a moral crusade, and Mary Jane devises a strategy that, she is sure, will get Angel an acquittal.

But Angel is alone in protective custody with Lucius Jenkins, an ostentatiously born-again murderer who insists that, even behind bars, his life has been turned around, allowing him to find joy in the simplest things, such as the one hour of sunlight he is allowed each day. Even as Mary Jane artfully casts doubt on the many witnesses to Angel's crime -- and mounting a high-risk strategy that will involve Angel lying under oath -- Lucius urges Angel to do as he did, admit his crimes and put his future in the hands of the Lord. Then again, this former addict, aka "Black Plague," has killed eight people ("that we know of," adds Mary Jane, driving each syllable with a verbal hammer) and is facing extradition to Florida, where he will be executed.

Can Angel lie his way to freedom? Or should he follow Lucius' advice and take the punishment the law devises for him? Is Mary Jane savvy enough to manipulate the court to Angel's advantage? If so, is she really serving a higher concept of justice? And is Lucius really all that he seems? The answers are many, and all of them leave one uneasy, proof that playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis' drama is drawn from the messy complexity of real life. Chances are that, at one point or another, each character will convince you that he or she has the right idea; wait a minute, however, because that conclusion is likely to be swiftly overturned.

First produced in 2000, Jesus Hopped the A Train is one of Guirgis' early works, and his inexperience shows. A compact piece with five characters, much of the significant action happens offstage -- especially the trial sequences, which are entirely narrated by Mary Jane. Still, the playwright's skill is evident in the gorgeous arias given to his three main characters and for any number of scalding exchanges. Mary Jane recalls a father-daughter dance at her school, "me in a dress my parents couldn't afford, and my dad in his Irish all-purpose navy-blue suit with a pair of black socks we had convinced him to borrow from the neighbors." (The evening ended abruptly when her father got into an argument with another parent, stabbing him with a dessert fork.) Lucius offers a hair-raising account of his first murder, the victim being an Ecuadorian pizza delivery boy who ended up in a dumpster, in pieces. "And ya know what happened? Nuthin'. Not a damn thing. Kept waitin' for the sirens, they never came ... So I called up the pizza shop, tol' 'em, 'I never got my pizza.' You know what they did? They sent me another one." Valdez, the sadistic guard who watches over Angel and Lucius, isn't having any of the latter's religiosity: "Do you really believe that there's a thing called God? Or is it that your pain is so unbearable you force yourself to create a belief in order to medicate that pain? And if there is a God, Superstar, do you honestly believe that you are free from the burden of what you've done?"

Whatever the play's structural weaknesses, such questions prickle throughout, and Mark Brokaw's production improves on the original in just about every way. Sean Carvajal's Angel is hobbled by years of hard living but he remains a man of violent passions, as seen in his scathing verbal bouts with Mary Jane and Lucius. Stephanie DiMaggio's Mary Jane is a natural-born scrapper, desperate to make a difference in the world yet blinded by her arrogance. In his Off-Broadway debut, Edi Gathegi makes Lucius into the most golden-tongued killer imaginable; long after the lights have come up, you'll be questioning his beliefs. As Valdez, Ricardo Chavira makes the most of a speech that, by analogy, lays out his theory of criminal correction. ("People go through life discarding things, tangible and intangible, replaceable and priceless. What people do not understand is that once they have discarded an irreplaceable item, it is lost forever.") Erick Betancourt is fine as another guard, who retains his sympathy for Lucius to the end.

Riccardo Hernandez has supplied a stark set design, a concrete box with two cage-like holding pens, and Scott Zielinski's lighting ranges from a grim white wash to Lucius' beloved sunlight to artfully carved-out smaller playing spaces. Dede M. Ayite's costumes and M. L. Dogg's sound are typically solid.

As Angel, Lucius, and Mary Jane hurtle toward their fates, one thing is clear: Each of them has an apprehension of the truth that is equally accurate and fatally flawed. (The scene in which Mary Jane coaches Angel, teaching that him that lies built on truth are the most effective, could stand as the play's thesis statement.) As Guirgis makes clear, salvation and justice may have nothing to do with each other -- and neither one, when it arrives, may be easily recognizable. -- David Barbour

(30 October 2017)

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