posted 2011-05-11 12:00:48

Jesus Hopped the "A" Train marked by memorable performances

Redemption Has Its Price

Jesus Hopped the "A" Train marked by memorable performances

Scott Klocksin

Staff Writer

This spring's Hunter College production of Stephen Adley Guirgis's modern urban tragedy, Jesus Hopped the "A" Train, is set at the notorious Rikers Island Prison in the present, and opens with a rude reminder to extinguish any doubts in the house about who's in charge.

A large, menacing figure named Valdez (Ryan Castro) pierces the anxious pre-curtain darkness of the Fredrick Loewe Theatre in full prison guard regalia, barking in a working class New York accent an otherwise mundane announcement about audience comportment.

"Welcome to Rikers, bitch."

People end up in The Joint for all sorts of reasons, but in this play there are some doozies. Lucius Jenkins (Roger Smith) is a paranoid schizophrenic who admits to eight murders in a vicious, multi-state killing spree. Angel Cruz (Luca Ritter) is a 30 year-old bike messenger who lost his childhood friend to the seclusion of a religious cult and reaped vengeance by "shooting the cult's leader in the ass."

Jaclyn Mitgang summons a wide-ranging and disciplined ardor as Mary Jane Hanrahan, a public defender tasked with representing Angel. It's hardly a match made in heaven. Angel wants another lawyer; Mary Jane wants another client. But in looking back on the tumult of her past, she takes a fondness to Angel and decides his crime of peculiar, if genuine, passion is worth going out on a career-threatening limb for.

Lucius, meanwhile, is a tad harder to like. His status as a born-again Christian does little to divert the wrath of either the prisoners or the guards. Hope — at least of the kind the judicial system can provide — is lost for him, and his liveliness comes from on high. In their exercise yard encounters, Angel isn't convinced by Lucius's semi-coherent proselytizing.

And, to put it mildly, neither is Valdez.

Castro's convincing performance as the sadistic Valdez is one of several that stand out for deftly shouldering the burden of a script that demands full commitment in its reification on stage. Also worthy of mention is the way Smith renders Lucius with an energy that is by turns manic and devastating, yet always shot through with fortitude and emotional truth.

That Lucius the Serial Killer could also be Lucius the Human Being is brought home by a poignantly-delivered homage by "good cop" guard D'Amico (Ernest Pysher).

Caleb Levengood's sparse set, consisting mainly of a chain-link cage set at a 45-degree angle from the audience, fits the mood of the show like a big, chicken-wire glove, but makes for some awkward viewing at times. On several occasions, Valdez delivers lines obscured by the fence, and his bullying swagger suffers for it.

The verisimilitude in the vision of director Antonio Edwards Suarez is also dealt a small blow in scenes in which Lucius and Angel pass cigarettes through an inexplicably imaginary fence that's supposed to be between them, though the Lowe's space constraints may have made this unavoidable.

The small set changes are executed by guards with a swift militarism befitting the bleak setting.

And that setting, as the play goes on, becomes the crucible of an improbable bond between Lucius and Angel — though, like the one between Angel and his lawyer, it's a bond that can't hold for long.