Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train begins and ends with the same image: a young prisoner, Angel, on his knees, praying in darkness. Angel’s desperate desire for assurance and forgiveness make him, in a weird way, immediately lovable. There is even something endearing about the crime that put him in prison: He shot a cult leader in the butt while trying to rescue a friend. In the cell opposite Angel is Lucius. Lucius also prays. Lucius’s crimes are less endearing: He murdered eight people, including at least one child.
A Train, at Coho Theater in a co-production with Beirut Wedding World Theatre Project, asks big questions. What is the difference between being a true believer and being full of shit? Who deserves mercy? Why is it so hard to pin down what it means to “be good”? And why is it so hard for a doctor to remove a bullet from a butt cheek?
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adley Guirgis (whose Between Riverside and Crazy and The Motherfucker with the Hat have been hits for Artists Rep in recent seasons) worked as an arts educator at Rikers Island, where A Train is set, before writing it. The play, which premiered in 2000, mainly centers on a series of philosophical exchanges between Angel and Lucius, who bat big themes like God and Forgiveness back and forth like tennis balls. Yet for all of its overtly religious themes, the play is surprisingly unpretentious.
That’s one hallmark of Guirgis’s genius: he isn’t afraid of dealing with big ideas directly. Think of him as a modern-day Eugene O’Neill. Both playwrights write gritty New York characters with a particular street vernacular that, under the right pressure, may erupt into heightened poetry. Both write characters who are struggling to reconcile their idea of themselves with the reality of themselves. Both are obsessed with blame and forgiveness. Both write plays with insanely high stakes, verging on melodrama. Both are masters of the long, uninterrupted two-person scene. But Guirgis has something O’Neill didn’t: the wit of a standup comedian. Piercing, poetic dialogue, plus complex characters, plus humor, equals fun for both actors and audiences.
Actors can sink their teeth into a play like Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, and that’s exactly what this ensemble, under Jamie M. Rea’s direction, does. Anthony Lam, as Angel, exudes the exact mix of tenderness and strength that distinguishes so many of Guirgis’s heroes. Lam is a tremendously physical actor, suiting word and action to each other with grace and subtlety. His power lies in his ability to remain aware of his scene partners and the space he inhabits. At one point in the performance I saw, Lucius (Bobby Bermea) threw Lam a lit cigarette, which bounced off Lam’s hand. Instead of simply bending down and picking up the cigarette, Lam had the presence of mind to respond to what would have been a quick burn. He took what might have been a throwaway moment and made it important. Lam also captures the childlike charm of Angel, which develops into maturity as the play progresses.
As the psychopathic Lucius Jenkins, Bermea’s eyes can flit seamlessly from enlightenment to insanity, compassion to cruelty, confidence to fear. He makes Lucius, a psychopathic serial killer, a kind of stand-in for us all. We all, in our own ways, are serving the death penalty, and in response to this inescapable sentence we seek assurance. We depend on convenient systems of meaning-making that shield us from the reality of a terrifying unknown. We are all, in our own way, horrible sinners, biding our time, letting our minds run away with us. Bermea forces us to realize this, to identify with him, and to ask ourselves what the limits of our love are. He’s a consummate professional fully capable of taking on a titanic role: someone please cast him as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh ASAP. Please.
Dana Millican, as Mary Jane Hanrahan, Angel’s defense attorney, is tasked with one too many lengthy, expository monologue. But she carries them all off with such confident, sharp conviction that the lines don’t feel as boring as they might if you read the text. Her sense of pacing brings Guirgis’s words to life, and, like Bermea, she has a powerful set of eyes that can do a whole lot.
CoHo’s production overlooks some details. One ensemble member mainly stands staring off into the darkness in the background of many scenes. Why does that actor need to be on stage? Also, the sadistic security guard, Valdez, has a great costume, but it has an enormous grey plastic badge that looks so fake/out of place it’s distracting, and should disposed of immediately. The script is at times a little too talky, too tangential. But the good absolutely outweighs the bad. Lighting and sound design are subtle and evocative, especially the sound of seagulls squawking softly above Rikers, and the cool blue lights lining the bottom of the jail cells.
Yes, this play has interesting, delightfully imprecise things to say about big religious themes. You’ll enjoy talking about that in car ride home or during drinks afterwards. But really, you should go see Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train because the authenticity of the text is brought to life by a group of highly capable actors who are clearly challenging themselves, and most importantly, having fun.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train continues through May 11 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.