New York Congressman Adriano Espaillat has called it “an 18th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.” New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has vowed to shutter it in the next decade. Most people don’t think about it unless they’re flying out of LaGuardia, but many don’t have that luxury: Rikers Island, the bête noire of the East River, is one of the largest and worst prisons in America and a hotbed of violence and neglect. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2000 play Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, in revival at Signature Center, aims to counteract that neglect and remind its audience of the discarded, forgotten lives behind its iron gates.
The five-character play centers on two inmates in protective custody, who interact during the one hour a day they’re allowed to take sun in individual cells on the roof: Angel (Sean Carvajal), a bicycle messenger awaiting trial for first-degree murder, and Lucius (Edi Gathegi), a serial killer and born-again Christian nicknamed the Black Plague, awaiting extradition to Florida. Angel’s victim was Reverend Kim, leader of a Scientology-like cult, whom Angel shot “in the ass” as a last-ditch attempt to save his friend, and who later died in the hospital.
Guirgis has created characters of complexity and nuance. Despite Angel’s seeming introversion, which grows increasingly severe the longer he languishes in prison, he can hold forth eloquently when defending his actions. It’s this candor that convinces Mary Jane (Stephanie DiMaggio), the harried public defender assigned to him, to pursue his defense despite a tense initial meeting in which she confuses Angel with a different case.
Lucius is more than the perennial optimist he may at first seem as well. Though he’s found Jesus, he manipulates Charlie (Erick Betancourt), a sympathetic guard, and very nearly succumbs to rage at the abusive hands of Charlie’s sadistic replacement, Valdez (Ricardo Chavira). Lucius seems genuine, but his newfound buoyancy is as likely to be canny maneuvering as it is genuine repentance.
Despite all their contradictions, though, the characters never really add up to more than mouthpieces for the playwright’s shrewd ethical problematizing, talking around issues instead of illuminating them. In 2011’s The Motherfucker With the Hat, Guirgis constructed an intricate mesh of motivations and moral quandaries that was not only emotionally but also politically satisfying; the characters’ bruising behavior was as much a product of their social situation as it was an attempt to transcend it. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, on the other hand, perhaps mirroring its protagonists’ hopelessness, brokers no such transcendence. Guirgis’s dramaturgical strategy to hold focus on the casualties of the American justice system instead of the system itself is a moving one, but one that ends up relying on extended monologues to flesh out supporting characters and provide exposition. The result is a play that, for all Guirgis’s trademark profane poetry and hardline moralizing, has no center.
Director Mark Brokaw does little to mitigate this thinness. The whole show is played at a fever pitch, which neuters the humor and feeling in Guirgis’s script, with often-perfunctory movement-for-the-sake-of-movement. This becomes especially enervating during the monologues, which stop the play cold and require a lighter hand to offset the monotony. Menace is one of the hardest actions to play on stage, and under Brokaw's direction, Chavira indulges in all the strong-arm clichés. What should sting instead barely registers.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train has never felt more timely, though. It was no less appropriate at its premiere 17 years ago, but recent events have thrown its thematic explorations into stark relief; if the play hasn’t changed, the world certainly feels more ready to receive it. “We’re all gonna beat what needs to be beat,” Lucius tells Charlie during a characteristically sunny moment. That the mantra of the eternally unflappable is delivered by a serial killer demonstrates the play’s wicked sense of humor, as well as its ability to speak to our political moment. Guirgis’s play casts tremendous doubt that what needs to be beat is beatable, or even knowable, but it’s a welcome reminder that even an hour in the sun is sometimes enough to weather the darkness.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train runs through Dec. 3 on the Irene Diamond Stage at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at 212-244-7529 or visit signaturetheatre.org.