Theater review by Helen Shaw
The afternoon I saw Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, the audience applauded midscene four times. Four times! That’s unusual at a nonmusical; contemporary realism doesn’t go for showstoppers. Yet Guirgis, an unapologetic maximalist, writes as though he were composing opera: Stretches of talk flower into huge, profane, splenetic prose arias. These near-monologues are often gorgeous, but they can also be weirdly self-negating; in ‘A’ Train, they don’t even always make sense. Still, they’re full of rhetorical fireworks. Dazzled, we ooh and aah.
Guirgis’s 2000 drama is a fugue on themes of justice, incarceration and faith. In a pair of yard cages on Rikers Island, Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal) and Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi) fight about all three: Jenkins, a serial killer nicknamed “The Plague,” has rather noisily found Christ, while Angel, who has accidentally killed the leader of a cult, manifests doubts. Two wannabe saviors hover around them—Angel’s rule-bending lawyer (Stephanie DiMaggio) and a gentle prison guard (Erick Betancourt)—while another guard, the cruel Valdez (Ricardo Chavira), sneers and spits like a devil in a medieval painting.
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. Guirgis frequently seems content to have people speak for the sole purpose of hearing them hold forth; we could almost be at an actors’ showcase, with the performers taking turns. There’s enough bluster and noise between Angel and Lucius—enough tough-guy posturing and King James cadences—that we assume a real conversation is taking place. But even as the speeches build in volume and intensity, they seem less and less connected to each other, buried in an avalanche of passionate talk.
Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Mark Brokaw. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission. Through November 12.
Follow Helen Shaw on Twitter: @Helen_E_Shaw
Follow Time Out Theater on Twitter: @TimeOutTheater
Keep up with the latest news and reviews on our Time Out Theater Facebook page