Like love stories, the crime-and-punishment narrative is so archetypal that it easily lends itself to formulaic entertainment. But playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis frustrates reassuring expectations of justice and atonement in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Written in 2000, his provocative drama is being given its belated Northwest premiere by Azeotrope in a deeply involving, richly orchestrated production hosted by ACT’s Central Heating Lab initiative.
The New York-based Guirgis has become highly touted over the past decade as a fresh theatrical voice willing to take on hefty themes in a style that mixes gritty, street-talking realism with agile flights of verbal virtuosity. Despite facile comparisons with David Mamet, Guirgis’s raw, tough-guy speech has a flavor all its own. Along with most of his plays, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train was originally incubated at his Off-Broadway LAByrinth Theater Company, where Guirgis frequently collaborates with Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Hoffman has directed the premieres of several of his plays, including Jesus.)
But it’s a challenging style to pull off — and a brave choice for the emerging Azeotrope, which does so with admirable conviction. The company made its debut in late 2010 with Adam Rapp’s study in emotional desperation, Red Light Winter — in my opinion one of the most vividly memorable productions of that season. It showed an eagerness to tackle playwrights who make unusual demands with their portrayal of not-readily-likable characters. Guirgis, who, until recently, was notably absent from Seattle stages, pushes Azeotrope even further in Jesus. This is a play whose main characters flirt with our sympathies precisely as we increasingly come to understand how deeply flawed — and even depraved — they are.
Set in the prison on Riker’s Island, the story focuses on the relationships that a 30-year-old Nuyorican named Angel Cruz develops with the attorney assigned to defend him and with a fellow inmate. Angel is initially sent to the clink for assaulting the Reverend Kim, leader of a religious cult that his best friend joined. To vent his anger over his friend’s brainwashing, Angel decides to shoot Kim “in the ass.” But the cult mastermind dies of unforeseen complications, and Angel, now charged with murder one, is sent up to protective custody. There, overseen by the vindictive prison guard Valdez, he’s drawn into exchanges with Lucius Jenkins, a convicted serial killer who has gotten religion.
The excellent ensemble, smartly directed by Desdemona Chiang, goes from strength to strength. Richard Nguyen Sloniker — Azeotrope’s founder, who also made a powerful impression in the chamber cast of Red Light Winter — explores the contradictions tormenting Angel. His multifaceted portrayal brings out the terror and confusion barely concealed beneath Angel’s defiant bravado, plausibly modulating between emotional extremes. Suspicious of the certainty and promise of salvation that made his friend susceptible to the cult, he nevertheless holds onto a mystical memory in which they both survived a close brush with death. The play is framed by images of Angel’s desperate attempts to recall the prayers of his Catholic upbringing.
But another path of redemption is held out by the born-again Lucius (Dumi), who doesn’t let the thought of the eight (at least) victims he’s gruesomely murdered disturb his newly acquired, self-righteous convictions as he fights extradition to Florida. Dumi’s dazzling and brilliant performance elicits the dangerous charisma of Lucius, his mad beatific gaze and pleasure in sun and seagulls either a masterpiece of self-delusion or a superbly executed sham.
In fact all of Jesus’s characters are motivated by the illusion of a private justice they’re entitled to, above the law, and they act accordingly, starting with Angel’s ill-fated attack on Reverend Kim. The brutality of their world is embodied most explicitly by Valdez, who’s determined to impose maximum suffering on Lucius until he sees him annihilated. But Ray Tagavilla gives us something more interesting than the cliché of the sadistic guard. The very existence of someone like Lucius is so appalling to him, a disproof of divine order, that he has to use violence to impose an order of his own.
Angel’s attorney Mary Jane Hanharan, by contrast, sees the possibility of redemption for her client and is even willing to risk her career for this “greater right.” It’s one of the weaker parts of Guirgis’s dramatic construction — he makes an unconvincing attempt to root Mary Jane’s passion for acquittal in memories of an alcoholic father — but Angela Dimarco gives her such a likeably determined energy that we’re tempted to overlook her self-serving agenda.
Guirgis incessantly upends expectations, weaving together familiar elements from courtroom drama and prison abuse exposé. There’s even a solemnly recounted description of capital punishment, delivered with an affecting mix of pathos and detachment by Patrick Allcorn, who plays a naïve but kind-hearted guard (he bends the rules for Lucius and ends up losing his job).
Desdemona Chiang doesn’t try to impose a consistent tone but lets Guirgis’s language run riot in all its exuberant color and frenetic rhythms — neatly complemented by Christian “Lil Kriz” Beeber’s original music and Jay Weinland’s sound design. She also has a keen sense for the importance of physical movement as part of the play’s overall texture, from Lucius’s Jesus-powered calisthenics to the broken-spirited posture of Angel’s darkest moments. Thanks to the intimacy of ACT’s black box Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space, the actors’ gestures and facial expressions carry an almost operatic intensity.
Deanna Zibello’s minimal set design and Jessica Trundy’s shadow-enhancing lights convey the depressing claustrophobia of the rooftop prison cages where Lucius and Angel converse but also suggest the tantalizing hint of freedom beyond. Their orange prison garb (costumes by Kimberley Newton) injects an ironic splash of color into the bleak, metallic surroundings.
The ambitious range of topics Guirgis grapples with — false prophets, the opium of religion, class and racial inequity, punishment and personal responsibility — occasionally threatens to derail Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Several exchanges, especially in the second act, feel too prolonged and interrupt the momentum. Still, this committed, riveting production not only makes it clear why Guirgis has become such a hot name among contemporary playwrights: it’s a major breakthrough for Azeotrope as well.
If you go: Azeotrope’s production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train runs through June 30 at ACT’s Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space, 700 Union Street, Seattle. $20-25. For additional information and tickets, visit Azeotrope’s website .