“Our father, who art in heaven.” So far, so good. “Howard be thy name.” This is where Angel (Sean Carvajal) begins to struggle. “Howard? How art? How? How-now? Fuck!” As Angel gropes his way through the Lord’s Prayer, other inmates join in. “Shut the fuck up!” shouts one. “Both a y’all, shut the fuck up!” adds a second. By the end of the scene, a guard is asking, almost with relish, “Did you just say ‘Fuck me’?”
Angel is young and reckless but well-intentioned. When his friend gets caught up in a Christian cult, he takes a shot on the preacher, accidentally killing him. Now at Rikers awaiting trial, he is only allowed to socialize for one hour a day, when he is caged next to the mass murderer Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi). Jenkins is a restless, loud-mouthed zealot, belting out the books of the Old Testament in reverse order in between push-ups. A transfer to Florida would mean the death penalty, but he prefers to talk about God with Angel or rankle their sadistic guard, Valdez (Ricardo Chavira). In return, Valdez offers Lucius the choice between “a garden-variety miserable experience” or “a world where mere misery is like toasting marshmallows ‘round the campfire.” “Don’t be a God-fearing man,” he warns his prisoner. “Be a Valdez-fearing man.”
Steven Adly Guirgis, the playwright behind Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, has a unique ability to find the music in profanity, to reveal the presence of the divine among the depraved. Angel is a lapsed Catholic but he takes his ethical responsibilities seriously: will he lie to the jury, ensuring victory, or choose to tell the truth and rot in prison for a juvenile mistake? Lucius, no doubt, is a raving hypocrite, but sometimes the Devil tells the truth: “You ain’t no man,” he says to Angel before his court date. “You ain’t shit, you don’t stand for shit, and your life is a wasteful embarrassment!”
The entire cast here is strong: Mr. Carvajal, thin, mute, and droopy, seems out of place among hardened criminals, while Mr. Gathegi is all explosive brio, shadowboxing both literally and verbally with his co-stars. And Mr. Chavira manages to inject some humanity into Valdez, even though most of his time is occupied with his pleasure in administrating punishment. Mr. Guirgis and much of his early work, including Jesus, came out of the LAByrinth Theater Company in collaboration with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like his late colleague, Mr. Guirgis has an intuitive respect for actors, who are given the meat of the text with little interference from a heavy-handed or technically ambitious playwright. While Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train sounds fresh, it is built upon old dramatic traditions—and a true pleasure to watch.