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John Ortiz is Angel Cruz
in Jesus Hopped The A Train
(Photo: Jamie Mullians)
Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings was acclaimed Off-Broadway recently, has found his niche writing passionate plays about the trials and tribulations of the underclass. In the case of his new work, Jesus Hopped the A Train, the emphasis is definitely on the "trials." Set largely in a special lockdown wing on Riker's Island where inmates are kept in protective custody, the play revolves around a young prisoner on trial for murder. As his situation is presented by Guirgis, however, he is on trial for much more--and so are several other key characters in this often gripping morality play.

Intellect and emotion rattle against iron bars as we meet Angel Cruz (John Ortiz), who has shot a religious cult leader in a rage. Charged with attempted murder, he tells his young, white, legal aid attorney Mary Jane (Elizabeth Canavan) that he aimed for the guy's ass and hit it; to kill him was never the intention. But the cult leader dies because of medical complications, leaving Angel in the slammer for murder. It had all started when he tried, unsuccessfully, to get his best friend out of the cult. Angel had no idea how much trouble he was getting into...

He spends one hour per day outdoors in the lockdown with a celebrity serial killer named Lucius Jenkins (Ron Cephas Jones). A murderer with a gift for gab, who may or may not have convinced himself that Jesus will save him, Lucius gets inside Angel's head. Is Lucius, who killed eight people in cold blood, all that different from Angel? The question gnaws at Angel even as his driven, young lawyer breaks rules and risks her career to get him off scot-free.

These are the bones of the plot, but the texture of the play often turns this melodrama into art. While some early scenes and monologues sound as if they come from the page, not the stage, the jarring awkwardness of those passages begins to fades when Lucius appears. As written and acted, he is the play's most fully realized character; and that's ironic, because he is also Guirgis' most elusive, mysterious creation. Lucius befriends the play's protagonist and genuinely helps him in his hour of need, yet he dispassionately describes his vicious murder of at least two people. He's an enigma. In the play's best monologue, when a softhearted corrections officer named D'Amico (Salvatore Inzerillo) admits that he never understood Lucius but says that he liked him anyway, we can certainly understand what he means.

Directed with pulsating energy by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who also directed In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings), the play throbs with testosterone. The production is made all the more visceral thanks to the original music and sound design by Eric DeArmon. An actor's director, Hoffman has put together an almost flawless cast led by a mesmerizing Ron Cephas Jones as the bible-toting serial killer Lucius and an emotionally plugged-in John Ortiz as Angel, a young man genuinely trapped between good and evil. Salvatore Inzerillo, in a supporting role, gives a sweetly understated performance. David Zayas tackles the one-dimensional character of a brutal corrections officer and plays that one-note so convincingly that you can't help but admire the work. Only Elizabeth Canavan, as the over-reaching legal aid lawyer, fails to convince; her strident performance, coupled with an unappealing vocal instrument, puts a small dent in the play's effectiveness.

Jesus Hopped the A Train is a production of the up-and-coming LAByrinth Theater Company, of which Guirgis, Hoffman, and the entire cast are members. This is obviously a company on fire.

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