Jesus Hopped the A Train

Stephen Adly Guirgis
The LAByrinth Theater Company
Donmar Warehouse
(2002)

This is a play that can be seen on many levels. Its main characteristic is the incredible anger felt by every single one of its five characters. It runs at a tremendous pace and volume and, by the end, despite much witty wisecracking, could leave many of the members of its audience feeling drained.

The set, which consists of a series of cages, sets the scene nicely. Angel Cruz and Lucius Jenkins are murderers who have been put into special detention in Riker's Island Prison in New York. They spent 23 are out of every 24 hours in their cells. The play attempts to explain the motivations behind their actions and to explore the way in which prison, their society and background affect their attitudes.

While, in many ways, this is a hard-nosed prison drama, it also borrows elements from legal shows such as LA Law and Perry Mason and contains significant elements of theological debate. This last element, which is perhaps the most important, is particularly well developed in the roughhouse of an American prison rather than the more usual well-to-do English country house.

Angel Cruz, played by John Ortiz, has ended up in prison for shooting the head of a religious sect in the ass. The sect had kidnapped his best friend and, ultimately, Angel knew no other way to protest than by taking the law into his own hands. Unfortunately for him, the moneymaking preacher suffered a heart attack and died. The defender appointed by the state to protest his case is a most unusual young lady.

Mary Jane Hanrahan, played by Elizabeth Canavan, is an Irish-American who grew up the hard way. Her father had IRA sympathies and has bred into her support for underdogs. Her initial meeting with Angel is a slanging match. Initially, they are perhaps too similar and fight. However, she becomes dedicated to saving Angel. Unfortunately, as he has confessed to the shooting, she is placed in an impossible position. If she calls him to speak in Court, unless he perjures himself perfectly then he will be imprisoned forever and she will be disbarred.

Running in parallel with the attempts to defend the largely innocent, explicable deeds of a downtrodden Puerto Rican, is the story of Lucius, played by Ron Cephas Jones. This is a real murderer. He has admitted to killing no fewer than eight people and there are suspicions that he may even have killed many more. However, he has caught religion in a big way and now sounds so reasonable that it is hard to believe that he has ever committed an evil deed in his life, despite his regular confessions.

The playwright, together with director Philip Seymour Hoffman, better known as an actor in numerous films, who has drilled his cast perfectly, manages to combine debate on religion and morality with his legal drama and portrayal of life in an incredibly unpleasant prison. This could not have been achieved without excellent performances from the three leading actors, including David Zayas as a particularly sadistic correction officer.

This is another success for the Donmar's American Imports programme that brought Three Days of Rain to London a couple of years ago. It is a very hard, energetic and unusual play exploring interesting issues and fully justifies its importation, complete with cast, from New York.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher