‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’ Theater Review: A Prison Drama That Can’t Be Contained

Sean Carvajal and Edi Gathegi prove themselves to be troupers in spirited revival

They say the show must go on, and that has proven especially true of the Signature Theatre’s star-crossed revival of the 2000 Stephen Adly Guirgis prison drama “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.”

In the last few weeks, director Mark Brokaw’s production has lost both of its lead actors to medical or personal conflicts. But two remarkable actors — Sean Carvajal and Edi Gathegi — have stepped in and (mostly) hit their marks.

Guirgis has written an issue play, with a capital “I,” one that touches on issues of crime and punishment, free will, religion and justice. And he’s built it on the back of some rat-a-tat dialogue and exchanges of ideas that continually reveal the capacity to surprise.

Mostly, he plays with opposites. There are two inmates at New York’s Rikers Island Prison, one an African American serial killer named Lucius Jenkins awaiting extradition to Florida who’s become something of a celebrity since his conversion to God. As played by Gathegi, he’s a smooth-talking operator whose embrace of religion can never quite be separated from the demonstrable benefit he’s gotten from it.

The other is Carvajal‘s Angel Cruz, an initially reticent Puerto Rican awaiting trial for shooting the leader of a cult that swept up his best friend — as he’s prone to remind anyone who will listen, he shot the shady preacher in the butt with no intention of actually killing him. We meet Angel as he struggles to remember the words to the Lord’s Prayer — but when goaded to speak, he can flash an impulsiveness that helps explain the unfortunate situation in which he finds himself.

The play also introduces two guards, who are similarly cast in opposition: a by-the-book martinet (Erick Betancourt) and a more easy-going pushover (Ricardo Chavira) who proves to be more indulgent of Lucius and malleable to his undeniable charisma.

There’s a fifth character too: a do-gooding public defender (Stephanie DiMaggio) who reluctantly agrees to take on Angel’s case. Underwritten and utterly conventional, the stuff of “Law & Order,” she serves mostly to deliver plot points between the lively debates about faith and justice.

And it’s here, in those Sorkin-like exchanges that dance around Big Ideas without ever settling on even Medium-Size Conclusions, that Guirgis‘ work shines. Nearly two decades after Philip Seymour Hoffman directed the first production, “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” still packs a punch.