06 November 2017

'Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train'

Stephen Adly Guirgis has been around as a playwright since 1995 (with the one-act Race, Religion and Politics at HERE in lower Manhattan), so he’s been what’s usually called an “emerging playwright” for 22 years.  I’ve known his name for much of that time, but I’d still only seen one Guirgis play, the original production of  Our Lady of 121st Street in February 2003 at the Union Square Theatre.  Now Guirgis is the Residency One writer at the Signature Theatre Company, the successor to Suzan-Lori Parks, whose year-long term just ended, so I was glad to have a chance to see some more of his work.  The thing is, I don’t really remember much about Our Lady of 121st Street, so I’m sort of starting with a clean slate.

Guirgis, who turns 53 on 30 November, is now a Pulitzer Prize-winner (in 2015 for Between Riverside and Crazy, Atlantic Theater Company, 2014; Atlantic Theater Company/Second Stage Theatre, 2015; also 2015 Lucille Lortel Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Off Broadway Alliance Award) with a Broadway run to his name (The Motherfucker with the Hat, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 2011; nominee for 2011 Best Play Tony, Outstanding Play Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama League Award).  His first STC production is the current Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train; it will be followed by a revival of Our Lady of 121st Street in the spring of 2018 and a new play during the 2018-19 season.  After seeing the new production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train on Friday evening, 27 October, I’m looking forward to seeing it again—and catching Guirgis’s première next year. 

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train had its world première at the East 13th Street/CSC Theatre in New York City’s East Village from 29 November to 31 December 2000, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman for the LAByrinth Theater Company.  The production starred Ron Cephas Jones as Lucius Jenkins and John Ortiz, LAByrinth’s co-artistic director (with Hoffman), as Angel Cruz.  The play was later presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2001 where it won the First Award, as well as at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2002, garnering a nomination for the Olivier Award for Best New Play for 2003.  Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train was produced by the Eclipse Theatre Company of Chicago in 2016 and in Melbourne, Australia, in 2003 at the Red Stitch Theatre.  Other revivals have been staged around the U.S. and abroad.  The current STC mounting, the first revival in New York City since its début here, began previews under the direction of Mark Brokaw in the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Irene Diamond Stage, the company’s main proscenium house, on 14 October 2017 and opened on 23 October; it’s scheduled to close on 26 November (after a two-week extension from 12 November).

Despite being a fixture in New York and U.S. theater—Guirgis is also a working stage, film, and TV actor, a director, and a screenwriter—there’s remarkably little about his background in public record that I’ve found.  Stephen Adly Guirgis was born in 1964 in New York City, the son of an Egyptian father and an Irish-American mother, and raised on the Upper West Side.  He attended Catholic school in nearby Harlem and went to the State University of New York at Albany, graduating in 1990.  It took Guirgis 7½ years to complete his BA because, as he acknowledged, he was “just lost,” switching majors from undeclared to political science to English.  Then he found his focus when his sister gave him tickets to Lanford Wilson’s 1987 drama Burn This starring John Malkolvich.   That production “changed my fucking life,” Guirgis declares.  “The play just knocked me out.  I went back and changed my major to theater.”  As a theater student at SUNY-Albany, Guirgis also met a new friend: classmate John Ortiz who would be a founding member and co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company.

Guirgis began his theater career as an actor—he considers himself “an actor who writes,” according to theater journalist Leslie (Hoban) Blake—and in 1994, he was asked to join LAByrinth.  The next year, Ortiz asked him to write a play, which turned out to be his first produced work, Race, Religion and Politics.  At LABryrinth, the tyro playwright also met Philip Seymour Hoffman, who became Guirgis’s friend and frequent director in his early years.  The writer felt that LABryrinth became his family and Hoffman his brother, as he wrote in the dedication to the published text of three of his plays.  (Hoffman died from a drug overdose at 46 in 2014.)  LABryrinth, founded in 1992, has produced eight of Guirgis’s 10 scripts (to date), five of them directed by Hoffman.  His screenwriting credits have included TV shows such as NYPD Blue and The Sopranos.

Guirgis’s plays depict a life on society’s margins, characters the New Yorker’s Hilton Als observes are “black, Jewish, and Latino voices that meet and crash and land on the predatory streets” of New York City.  His plays, including Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, are tragic, but include a great deal of tremendous humor.  He employs language as a kind of street poetry, salted with obscenities, but his characters use it to express often complex and profound ideas they wrestle with throughout the play.  The character’s themselves at first glance seem like stereotypes, even clichés, but they soon show themselves to be unique and fully-rounded individuals who often surprise the viewer.  If there’s a detriment to this dramaturgy, it’s that many of Guirgis’s characters, both the educated and the un-, begin to sound alike, as if they are all avatars of one another.

This isn’t to say that Guirgis’s plays offer a clear-cut resolution either to the plays’ situations or the characters’ issues; they are often open-ended and leave many questions raised but unanswered.  Some critics have found this a drawback in Guirgis’s playwriting, while others see his not supplying ready answers as an asset.  By one measure, too, his plays cover too many metaphysical and intractable problems to resolve easily.  This can be frustrating to a spectator, even unsatisfying—but it leaves the theatergoer thinking, which may well have been the dramatist’s intent all along. 

This 2¼-hour, two act play focuses on two temporary inmates of New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal) and Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi), and the two men and one woman who are in their orbit in the city’s criminal justice system.  (Curiously, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train was originally set in the The Tombs, formally called the Manhattan Detention Complex, at the southern end of the island, known at the time as the Bernard B. Kerik Complex.)  It’s around 2000 (because Lucius mentions wanting to be interviewed by TV journalist Connie Chung, who’s been off network news since then and off the air for over 10 years now).  Angel, a 30-year-old Nuyorican, is waiting to be tried on a charge of attempted murder for shooting Reverend Kim, the leader of a Moonie-like cult, in the ass.  Angel charged that Reverend Kim had “stolen” his childhood friend Joey and, stymied by a system rigged by the reverend’s influential church, the assault “was something I could do, ah-right?!”—the only thing.  (Guirgis says that he wrote the play based on his own attempt to rescue a friend from Moon’s Unification Church.)

After an opening scene in which the irreligious Angel tries unsuccessfully to say the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name” is how it comes out), accompanied by obscene catcalls from inmates and guards, his public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Stephanie DiMaggio), meets with her client and starts off confusing him with another defendant.  He demands a “real” lawyer and Mary Jane tries to mollify him by demonstrating how well she knows his case—but Angel won’t have any of it.  A volatile and passionate man, Angel blurts out in his anger that he did, indeed, shoot Reverend Kim—though he denies he intended to do any more than “bust a cap in his lyin’, bullshittin’ ass.”  Whatever his intent, Mary Jane explains that she can’t represent him now because he confessed to her.  Having admitted that he shot Reverend Kim, she can no longer put him on the witness stand because if she does she “would be suborning perjury” and “if you’re lying up there, we can’t know about it.”  Now, Mary Jane observes, Angel will get that new lawyer he wants.

(This little dramaturgical gambit of Guirgis’s disturbed me—not the suborning perjury, which is legit, but the lawyer’s dropping a client because he “confessed” to her.  I didn’t buy it: if it were accurate, it seems like something that would happen fairly often and an awful lot of lawyers would be walking away from an awful lot of defendants.  I have a hard time believing this would really happen outside fiction.  So I asked a criminal defense lawyer I know—who does a lot of court-appointed cases, as a matter of fact—and he replied that I’m “correct that the attorney normally would not just walk away after such an admission.”  It’s not terribly consequential to the play since Mary Jane ultimately doesn’t drop Angel as a client—and we’ll see the consequences of that.)

Mary Jane sympathizes with Angel’s earnestness too much and ends up defending him anyway.  She begins by examining his motivation for shooting Reverend Kim.  When the reverend dies of a heart attack as a result of the operation to  remove the bullet, the charges against Angel are upgraded to felony murder.  As a result, he’s transferred to the Protective Custody wing of the jail and during his one hour of exercise in an outdoor cage, he meets Lucius in the next cage.  Well, not “meets,” exactly: the two inmates are separated by a uncrossable chasm of a few feet as each man is caged up within a box of metal mesh.  Lucius, an African American around 42, is a serial killer nicknamed “Black Plague,” awaiting extradition to Florida to face a capital trial for five murders, but he has delusions that he’s found Jesus even though he remains unrepentant.  Also in the PC exercise yard are two prison guards, Charlie D’Amico (Erick Betancourt) and Valdez (Ricardo Chavira), who have diametrically different approaches to implementing the laws they’re charged with enforcing; Charlie, in his 30’s, is affable, good-hearted—the uber good cop who’s become Lucius’s sidekick, and Valdez, older, maybe 40’s, has a vicious wit, a nasty mouth, and no sympathy for the cons. 

(The upgrade of Angel’s charge raised another question I posed to my attorney friend.  Obviously, the death of the victim of an assault ups the crime from attempted murder; that’s not in doubt.  I’d have thought he’d simply be charged with some kind of straight murder, however, not felony murder.  The death didn’t occur during the commission of some other crime—such as robbery, rape, arson, or burglary—but as a direct result of having been intentionally shot by the defendant.  My legal informant concurred: “I see no basis for felony murder on the facts as presented,” he wrote me.  I also checked on line and found that, as I surmised, assault isn’t construed as an underlying crime for a felony murder charge since murder usually involves an assault.  Again, though, this misunderstanding is of little consequence except insofar as it pulled me out of the play—any public defender, DA, or judge would know better—because the only important circumstance is that Angel is now charged with murder.)

The rest of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a confrontation, sometimes humorous, sometimes harrowing, mostly profane, between Lucius, charismatic and with a positivism that’s nearly maniacal, and Angel, hot-headed, emotional, stubborn, and conflicted (he’s dubbed “Droopy Dog,” much to his displeasure), as the three others circle around the periphery of their nonce universe.  It’s no coincidence that “Lucius” sounds a lot like “Lucifer,” so Guirgis is presenting us a conflict between Devil and Angel (who, to make this paring hold up, doesn’t use the Spanish pronunciation of his name).  Lucius speaks in the language of Christianity and redemption even though he’s committed eight gruesome murders (five in Florida and three more in New York State for which he’s already been convicted) and yet declares himself saved.  William Shakespeare observes that “the devil hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape.”  And Angel, caught between his desire to escape his punishment and his impulse to take responsibility for what he’s done, vacillates between accepting Lucius’s proffer of deliverance and rejecting his pretense of false salvation.  (Guirgis, a lapsed Catholic, has thrown a “Mary” into the mix as an arrogant and prideful would-be savior who stoops to deceit to win Angel’s case—which he, himself, scuttles resulting in her disbarment.) 

I found Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train fascinating—not great, which I’ll try to get to in a moment—though Diana, my usual theater companion, dismissed it as “same old same old” (which I reject).  She contended that Guirgis’s language was ordinary, that she’d heard it everywhere many times, and when I said I found it startling and even poetic (it is vulgar, but the characters are mostly jailbirds and guards), she sort of harrumphed.  This exchange occurred at intermission, so I said I wasn’t prepared to dismiss the play yet, that I found it interesting so far.  The characters intrigued me; though they appeared at first to be stereotypes, they seemed to promise surprises and quirks that hooked me. 

Now, I have to admit that in the end, Guirgis didn’t live up to the promise he seemed to have made.  The characters and the action didn’t really go anywhere in the end; the play’s a series of mostly short scenes that are all airy, philosophical discussion—albeit in earthy language—that don’t resolve anything as far as the drama goes.  The scenes are also often separated by direct-address monologues by many of the characters, a tactic I find anti-theatrical—people standing in a spotlight, talking to me.  (This reminded me a little of Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Confessions” in In the Blood.  See my report posted on 12 October and Kirk Woodward’s article “The Red Letter Plays, Continued,” 1 November.)  Still, I’m not ready to write Guirgis off, and I see enough of interest in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train to want to see where he goes with it.  Even with flaws in the overall dramaturgy, there are individual aspects of the play that are stunning.  (Guirgis’s third play as a Residency One writer will be a new work.)

Still, Guirgis not only has an ear for common speech, but like August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, and Anton Chekhov, he lets his characters speak more lyrically and poetically than real people ever can while still making it sound like street speech.  (This despite the vulgarities, which are just part of the milieu.)  The characters in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train talk philosophy without making it sound out of their range.  (The dialect coach for STC’s revival is Deborah Hecht, whom I assume has much to do with the success of this on stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center.)  He’s also created characters, all five of whom are seriously flawed.  Devil and Angel may be Guirgis’s template here, but not necessarily Good and Evil, for none of the five clearly represents either position.  For all his righteous anger and sense of justice, Angel is rash, out-of-control, and oblivious to the consequences of his choices, intended or not.  Lucius’s epistemology is insidious and self-deluding.  With Mary Jane, Charlie, and Valdez, the picture of the justice system the playwright has drawn demonstrates that the people on both sides are damaged.

Mark Brokaw has directed the STC company with high energy.  Not just Carvajal’s Angel and Gathegi’s Lucius work at full tilt, but so does Chavira’s Valdez and, to a slightly lesser degree, DiMaggio’s Mary Jane; only Betancourt’s Charlie performs on a slightly calmer plane—but his emotional investment is still pretty intense.  Gathegi does much of his scene work in a state of vigorous physical activity which is almost exhausting merely to watch, but he maintains his sense of character throughout.  (Andrea Haring is credited as vocal coach for the production, and I imagine she has something to do with this work.  There’s no credit for Gathegi’s physical performance, but whoever is responsible should take a bow.)  Brokaw has also staged the monologues most of the characters deliver to the audience so that they seem less interruptive than they might have in other hands—though they still halt the play so Guirgis can supply some background or reveal a character’s thoughts.  There ought to be a better, less writerly way to manage this (if, indeed, it’s even necessary)—but that’s not the director’s problem. 

Riccardo Hernandez’s minimalistic set, which consists of two metal cages that resemble nothing more than oversized kennels, is as grim and characterless as you might imagine a city jail would be.  (I haven’t had a great deal of experience with jails; my one encounter was in West Berlin when I was in the army and had to speak with someone who was incarcerated.  He was in a cell, not an exercise cage, but the image is mighty similar.)  Scott Zielinski’s lighting enhanced the bleakness of the surroundings—blazingly bright when the inmates are in the outdoor cages, exposed to the sunlight; dim and shadowy when they’re inside as when Angel meets with his lawyer. 

Before I get to the acting, I should make note of some difficulties through which the company went late in the rehearsal period for Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.  On 28 September, Playbill reported that the Signature Theatre Company delayed the start of previews, scheduled for 3 October, because of the withdrawal of actor Reg E. Cathey from the cast for “personal conflicts” (which Playbill indicated were unspecified “medical issues”).  The performances were to start on 5 October with Edi Gathegi taking the role of Lucius.  Then on 12 October, the theater magazine reported that Victor Rasuk, the actor playing Angel, had left the production for “personal reasons”; the role would be assumed by Sean Carvajal.  STC canceled performances from 7 through 14 October to rehearse Carvajal, but the opening date of 23 October was maintained.

Given the tribulations of the cast, and Gathegi and Carvajal in particular, they did a remarkable job just a fortnight after coming together.  I’ve already mentioned Gathegi’s physical exertions and the vocal work he does at the same time, but what makes this a performance and not just an exhibition of aerobics-cum-speech-making is that both Gathegi’s physicalizations and vocalizations are extensions of the emotional and psychological state of his Lucius.  As mercurial as Gathegi’s serial killer is, he makes it all visible and audible in his performance.  Another of Gathegi’s assets in the role is that I was never sure if his Lucius is on the level or shining us all on, especially Angel.  He’s so obviously pushing Valdez’s buttons and he shamelessly manipulates Charlie to do his bidding—clues that nothing he says or does is should be taken at face value—but is he putting one over on Angel, too?  Gathegi never provides an answer.  As Charlie says after viewing Lucius’s execution in Florida, “Ask me about Lucius Jenkins, . . . there ain’t a hell of a lot I know.”  Gathegi’s cool and his ability not to let us see a glimmer of truth makes his Lucius a truly terrifying man.  (I can’t entirely shake the character Gathegi played on The Blacklist on NBC in 2015 and ’16.  Being similarly inscrutable to Lucius, Gathegi’s character was one of the nastiest and most detestable killers ever to have a role on a TV series; he absolutely needed to die.) 

He’s matched beat for beat by Carvajal (who had even less time to prepare).  A small man, Carvajal seems lost in a prison jumpsuit that’s too big for him—but his stage presence and his energy are anything but hidden or small.  This dichotomy makes him something of a conundrum right from the start.  (This effect was either a brilliant coup by costume designer Dede Ayite, or a fortuitous accident of being forced to use the costume built for Carvajal’s predecessor.)  There are problems with Angel’s credibility—it’s hard to believe his quicksilver reversals, especially his final one that prompts him to confess in court to his act of revenge.  That’s no fault of Carvajal (or Brokaw); it’s Guirgis’s tyro playwriting.  (Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train was only the writer’s third produced work.)  However hard to get hold of Angel’s character is, Carvajal so fully commits to it, inexplicable changes and all, that I accepted it wholeheartedly.  There are people like that sometimes: you can’t figure out why they do what they do, but you completely believe they’re sincere about it.  That was Carvajal’s Angel.  As much as Gathegi keeps everyone, including the audience, out of Lucius’s inner life, Carvajal draws us in to Angel’s.

I’ve also already remarked that the figures on the outside of the Rikers cages are nearly as scarred as the prisoners, and all three actors, Stephanie DiMaggio, Erick Betancourt, and Ricardo Chavira, let us see this.  They show us the masks Mary Jane, Charlie, and Valdez present to the world in their scenes with Angel and Lucius, and DiMaggio and Betancourt show us the damaged and pained Mary Jane and Charlie in the monologues.  (Angel and Valdez are the only characters in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train who don’t address the audience directly.)  I’d have preferred to see those self-revealing moments integrated into the dialogue scenes, but, again, that’s not the fault of the actors.  If their roles are a little two-dimensional, DiMaggio, Betancourt, and Chavira carry them off convincingly.

Based on 24 published and posted reviews, Show-Score gave Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train an average rating of 83.  The site’s top score was one 95 for Theatre Is Easy, followed by a 93 on Front Row Center; the lowest score was Time Out New York’s 60.  The breakdown on Show-Score was 95% positive, 4% mixed, and no negative notices at all.  My round-up will consist of 14 reviews.

The New York Times was the only daily newspaper to cover the revival of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at STC.  In his review, Jesse Green labeled the play “an obscenity oratorio in which vicious, muscular dialogue, appropriate to its setting, turns into gorgeous music.”  Green elucidated:

If it reached no further, the breakneck drama . . . would be a worthy enough stunt, a jukebox of Mamet-scaled vulgarity.  But 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.

(Believe it not, this notice scored only a middling 85 on Show-Score’s scale.)  The opening moment of Angel struggling with the distant memory of the Lord’s Prayer, the Times reviewer pointed out, “is Mr. Guirgis’s tip-off that what may look like a genre play—a legal procedural—is going to consider God’s justice as well as man’s.”  Positing that “we have trouble deciding how to invest our emotions” between “the psychopath [who] is an acute thinker” and the “tantrum-prone man-child,” Green asserted, “That is exactly where Mr. Guirgis . . . wants us: in a confused crouch that renders us vulnerable to deeper questioning.”  The Timesman went on to ask: “So where is God—where is good—in the criminal justice system?” adding, “The questions don’t so much hover over ‘Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train’ as yank at it with gale force.”  Green, like me, found that the monologues “pull . . . back from the action,” but otherwise deemed Brokaw’s “staging . . . is otherwise evenhanded and clean, as if not wanting to leave any fingerprints,” instead “rightly” focusing “on shaping the cast into a superlative ensemble.”  The review-writer concluded that the play’s “arguments are eternal . . . .  But they are also particular to our time and place, perhaps even more so now that the United States is the world’s largest jailer than they were in 2000.”  His final point was: “In 2017 ‘Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train’ seems to ask whether justice, and even God, is possible in an unjust society.  No wonder it’s so profane.”

Helen Shaw of Time Out New York reported in Show-Score’s lowest-rated review (60) that at the performance she saw, “the audience applauded midscene four times.  Four times!  That’s unusual at a nonmusical; contemporary realism doesn’t go for showstoppers.”  Calling Guirgis “an unapologetic maximalist,” Shaw said he “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.

The TONY reviewer called the play “a fugue on themes of justice, incarceration and faith,” which, in Brokaw’s staging, “moves a bit uneasily.”  She perceived “a certain stasis in the play,” asserting that the author

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.   

In the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck stated in his “Bottom Line”: “Superb performances enliven this scorching drama.”  Reporting that Guirgis’s play “is now receiving a superbly acted revival at” STC, in a “riveting production staged by Mark Brokaw,” Scheck wrote that “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train showcases a writer beginning to flex his creative muscles” by “[i]nfusing its familiar criminal justice system tropes with incisive characterizations and riveting dialogue.”  The play, however, “reveals a young playwright’s awkwardness with its overwritten passages and reliance on expository monologues,” the HR reviewer felt.  “But it also displays incendiary passion and insight into its troubled characters.”  Carvajal and Gathegi both “deliver superb performances,” Scheck reported, though the rest of the company “are a bit hamstrung by their characters’ stereotypical aspects but are solid nonetheless.”  In his final analysis, the review-writer warned: “With its explosively profane dialogue and disturbing subject matter, the play is not for the faint-hearted.  But for everyone else it remains a vital, pulsating drama by an ascending playwright whose early promise has been richly fulfilled.”

Marilyn Stasio of Variety characterized Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train as an “intense prison drama” with “a painfully sensitive performance by Sean Carvajal” and “a drop-dead-cold performance from Edi Gathegi.”  Stasio described the revival by asserting that the director “has spring-wound this production so that taking too long a breath means missing something.  Voices are so well orchestrated they’re as complementary as the colors of a painting.” 

In cyberspace, Ran Xia wrote in his “Bottom Line” on Theatre Is Easy that Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a “furiously funny and gut-wrenching masterpiece.”  Labeling the production as “a breathtaking two-hour feat of humanity at its most relentless sincerity” in Show-Score’s top-rated notice (95), Xia described Guirgis as “one of those writers who possesses the rare and astonishing magic of not only transporting us into a tale far more complex than any one single theme, but in doing so by means of characters who engage us within seconds.”  The Theasy reviewer reported that despite the play’s “grim subject matter, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is ferociously funny” as director Brokaw “stays true to the story and lets each character speak candidly to the audience.”  With “no superfluous stylistic choices, nor any theatrical ‘accessories’ to distract us from Guirgis’ text,” Xia observed, “The result is an earnest and triumphant production without a single dull moment.” 

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart affirmed that Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train “raises difficult questions about the intersection of race and class when it comes to justice.”  Brokaw’s “tightly staged production” featuring “[a]cross-the-board stellar performances” offers “few answers or moments of relief,” Stewart found, and “hurls these quandaries at us with the velocity of an express train making the run between 125th Street and Columbus Circle.”  (For those who don’t know, that’s the ‘A’ train of the New York subway and is, I believe, the longest non-stop run in the system.)  The TM reviewer singled out Carvajal, who “takes an already noble character and lifts him higher with a stirring and unforgettable performance.”  Stewart concluded, “A thousand debates blossom from Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, a disquieting miniature of America in just five characters.”

Michael Dale characterized Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train as a “superb drama of public morality and personal convictions” on Broadway World.  Presented in “a thoroughly compelling new production” by Brokaw, “with an excellent company,” the STC revival “graces the playwright's emotionally thick and thought-provoking piece.”  On the Huffington Post, Steven Suskin proclaimed that “Guirgis is a tantalizing street poet” who “writes street plays for street characters.”  Suskin continued, “Time and again, in play after play, Guirgis surprises us with street-savvy but elegant prose, smart, lacerating and viciously funny.”  In Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, confirmed the HP review-writer, “We spend a significant part of the evening trying to keep up with the dazzling images that Guirgis sprouts from the mouths of babes.”

“I’d advise you to swipe your MetroCard and rumble over to [Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train’s] gripping revival at the Signature Theatre,” advised Samuel L. Leiter on his blog, Theatre’s Leiter Side.  Calling the play “a powerful drama, laced with biting humor,” Leiter asserted it “embraces deeply thoughtful themes of masculinity, faith, guilt, remorse, and responsibility.”  As I have, Leiter found fault with the play’s non-dramatic monologues, a literary but not theatrical device, but went on to declare that “Guirgis’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.”

On Theatre Reviews Limited, David Roberts affirmed that the play “carefully strips away the façade of ‘right and wrong,’ ‘innocence and guilt,’ and ‘good and bad’ to expose the horror of ‘discarding’ human being—a discarding that is ‘irreparable’ and will ‘last forever.’”  He added, “The play also resounds with the horrific wonder of the cycle of redemption.”  Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, said the TRL blogger, “raises rich and enduring questions regarding justice and morality; moral ambiguity; and guilt and innocence”; Guirgis’s “carefully developed tropes . . . are rich imagery and figurative language.”  Theater Pizzazz’s Sandi Durell warned potential theatergoers that Guirgis “writes with guts and blood and not for the faint of heart” and advised any who are “a little uncertain about hearing the on-going profanity of the imprisoned at Rikers Island, you might reconsider as well.”  Durell characterized Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train as “awash with minor and major monologues like pop ups that arise in empty spaces with [its] own humor and one-liners and a symphony of themes that encompass social justice, imprisonment, religious belief as the inmates and the guards battle their own demons.”  In the end, the TP review-writer reported, “The play is powerful, the actors riveting as Mark Brokaw drives the production with insightfulness aided by the dramatic lighting of Scott Zielinski.”

Bill Crouch asked on Stage Buddy, “What if everything you believe is wrong?  (I once asked this of very religious actress friend of mine.)  What if there is no God?  What if Jesus wasn’t the Son of God?”  Crouch continued: “Her answer haunts me to this day.  She looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Then I have nothing.  Nothing at all.’”  This connected to his response to STC’s revival:

The brilliance of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train . . . stunned me for the exact same reason her rebuke did.  It told me the unflinching truth.  The genius at work here is that Guirgis’ characters have nothing (and everything) to lose, and so, they argue brilliantly.  They argue to the death.

Performed by a “solid cast,” our stage buddy observed, “Though it can be a bit of a shouting match at times, in what feels like a somewhat cavernous space, there’s modulation here, too.”  With praise for the design team and the “precise and smooth direction,” Crouch recommended, “Get a ticket, hop a train, see this remarkable production at Signature Theatre Center.”

CurtainUp’s Les Gutman, who reviewed the play in its original run, had great praise for Guirgis’s work in general and for Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train in particular.  After complimenting especially Carvajal and Gathegi, Gutman contended that “it’s the play that’s compelling, and the fine actors are wonderful stewards of Guirgis’s words.”  He advised that “anyone who wants to understand why Guirgis earned all of the honors he has received should pay it a visit.”  The CU reviewer found that the design elements “are unforgiving in a way that perfectly conveys why none of us want to go to prison” and that Brokaw “directed with a careful but light hand.”  Gutman concluded that “Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is not a hard play to watch, because its intensity is lightened with lots of humor and its nuanced themes keep one too engaged to leave time for much outside the play.” 

On New York Theater Guide, Tulis McCall exclaimed that Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, a “nearly operatic” play, “is running in full glorious throttle at Signature Theatre.”  The playwright’s “writing here is spare and direct” with “the urgency of life and death.”  He “guides us through the switchback trails he has laid out with a steady hand,” asserted McCall.  Though she “questioned a few moments,” the NYTG review-writer felt, “The performances are spot on in every way.  No loose ends.  Just clarity, precision and engagement.”  Brokaw’s “direction mirrors the writing in its simplicity and ease.”  As her last word, McCall affirmed, “This is one of those productions that makes you remember why you love the theatre - because it is transformative.”

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