Sean Carvajal stars in Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, directed by Mark Brokaw, at Signature Theatre.
Sean Carvajal stars in Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, directed by Mark Brokaw, at Signature Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

A prisoner struggles through the Lord's Prayer in the opening moments of Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train. "Our Father, who art is heaven, Howard be thy name," he inauspiciously starts. He may not know the words, but does that make him a bad person? With the intensity of a gunshot to the behind, this stunning revival at Signature Theatre incisively explores the possibility of morality without religion and the existence justice outside the law.

The praying prisoner is Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal), a Harlem man accused of attempted murder for shooting Reverend Kim, a spiritual leader claiming to be the Son of God. Angel admits to shooting him (in the ass) to his public defender, Mary Jane (Stephanie DiMaggio). He insists that he was just doing it to rescue his friend from Kim's abusive cult, and that he wasn't shooting to kill. Against her better judgment, Mary Jane goes all in for his acquittal.

Stephanie DiMaggio plays Mary Jane, and Sean Carvajal plays Angel in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train.
Stephanie DiMaggio plays Mary Jane, and Sean Carvajal plays Angel in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train.
(© Joan Marcus)

Angel transfers to protective custody on Rikers Island after a series of assaults on him by other prisoners. That's where he meets Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi), a serial killer and born-again Christian. Lucius has a compelling personality, as evidenced by the way he has charmed correctional officer D'Amico (a lovably credulous Erick Betancourt) into sneaking him cigarettes and Oreos. The more hard-nosed Officer Valdez (Ricardo Chavira, with acruel smile) isn't buying his act, though: Lucius killed eight people and suddenly he's a holy roller? With D'Amico gone, Lucius looks for a new disciple in Angel. We begin to wonder: By targeting vulnerable people for conversion, is Lucius that different from Reverend Kim?

Written in a time (2000) before "intersectionality" was the buzzword on the tongue of every undergraduate, Guirgis's play raises difficult questions about the intersection of race and class when it comes to justice. Offering few answers or moments of relief, director Mark Brokaw's tightly staged production hurls these quandaries at us with the velocity of an express train making the run between 125th Street and Columbus Circle.

Edi Gathegi plays Lucius, and Ricardo Chavira plays Valdez in the off-Broadway revival of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train.
Edi Gathegi plays Lucius, and Ricardo Chavira plays Valdez in the off-Broadway revival of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train.
(© Joan Marcus)

Across-the-board stellar performances reinforce an already great play. DiMaggio endows Mary Jane with the driving hunger of a smart girl from humble origins still settling the score with the rich kids. Gathegi is charming and personable as the psychotic killer, but it's not hard to see under the patina. We're unsurprised, yet still horrified, when hell seems to spill out of his mouth near the end of the second act.

The real star turn of the piece belongs to Carvajal, who amazingly just stepped into the role nine days ago, after the original actor (Victor Rasuk) had to depart for personal reasons. Carvajal takes an already noble character and lifts him higher with a stirring and unforgettable performance. He appears small and weak in his oversize prison jumpsuit (smart detail by costume designer Dede M. Ayite), but we know he has a hidden strength beyond any of the other characters. "That a man who steals people, has them selling flowers on the street, gettin' rich off them," he angrily describes Reverend Kim. There is a slight catch in his voice, but he persists in speaking his dangerous truth: "Look me in my eye and tell me that a man like that should be allowed to do what he's doing! With a f*ckin' government-approved tax-exempt status and a full police escort!" We aren't surprised when spontaneous applause erupts after several of Carvajal's scenes.

Sound designer M.L. Dogg envelops us with the atmosphere of the prison, its clanging bars and rowdy inhabitants. Riccardo Hernandez visualizes it with his angular and sterile set, which depicts two man-size cages for Angel and Lucius. The two men are allowed one hour every day in these cages, which are situated in the prison yard. That means one hour of sunlight, which lighting designer Scott Zielinski gloriously fabricates. Still, the play ends much as it begins, with Angel in a dim pool of moonlight, asking forgiveness from God.

Sean Carvajal, Ricardo Chavira, and Edi Gathegi star in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train at Signature Theatre.
Sean Carvajal, Ricardo Chavira, and Edi Gathegi star in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train at Signature Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

We wonder if there's room for Angel's Catholic repentance in a society so thoroughly informed by the Protestant notion of the elect, in which some people are irresistibly destined for salvation and others, damnation. We also wonder if Mary Jane is more driven by a sense of justice or by pride in her own ability. Does the prison system attract guards actually interested in rehabilitation, or does it merely employ a bunch of sadists? A thousand debates blossom from Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, a disquieting miniature of America in just five characters.