Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the “A” Train was first produced in New York in 2000. Its portrait of a criminal justice system that is short on justice and long on system easily transferred to London’s Donmar Warehouse and earned the playwright an Olivier Award. Shamefully, the predicaments the piece explores have only gotten worse, making the revival at the Signature as timely and poignant as ever.
Guirgis has a flare for language and exploring characters not often seen in commercial theater. Similar to his recent Between Riverside and Crazy, the people we get to know in these two plus hours are trapped by circumstances. In this piece, the playwright is able to draw on his expertise in violence prevention, taking a deep dive into what makes a criminal and what makes a crime. He relies a little over-much on exposition, but even that is vivid and intense.
Those of you plugged into New York’s performing arts news may already know that *both* leads in this production had to be replaced: one for scheduling issues and the other for health reasons. Though this meant extended creative tinkering for the supporting actors and director Mark Brokaw, Sean Carvajal as Angel and Edi Gathegi as Lucius have taken control of their roles body and soul. The cast changes left SAG winner (for Desperate Housewives) Ricardo Chivira as the best known name in the lineup. His Valdez is a tad mustache-twirly, but helps focus some of the angrier energy.
When I lived in San Francisco, I volunteered at a residential program for former felons. I realize this makes me more likely to respond to the plight of bright creative people who make terrible decisions and are helped along that path by a lack of education, support and resources. Judging from the emotional reaction of audience members around me, these characters are so beautifully detailed, their situation will draw you in just because you are human.
Brokaw keeps the staging minimal, appropriate for the prison lock-down wing where most of the action takes place. His focus is on well-paced dialogue delivery and appropriate physicality. We deeply feel along with the characters as much as we hear their tales unfold. It is slightly painful, yet wondrous.
The simple set by Riccardo Hernandez conveys a sense of confinement, while still giving the actors sufficient room for expression and interaction. Prison garb by Dede M. Ayite has tiny touches of individuality. Lighting by Scott Zielinski and sound by M. L. Dogg hint at what’s beyond the walls we see.
Whether you are a social justice advocate or a fan of emotionally moving drama, Guirgis’s work has something important to say. Due to the delays caused by the recasting and resulting extra rehearsal days as well as to the enthusiastic response of the audience since the run’s relaunch, this production of Jesus Hopped the “A” Train has been extended through December 3. The ticket price has been bumped from the regular $30 to the still-reasonable $55. They are available on the Signature Theater website, http://www.signaturetheatre.org/shows-and-events/Productions/2017-2018/Jesus-Hopped-the-A-Train.aspx.
Halfway Bitches Go Straight To Heaven
No one creates moments that are simultaneously unsettling and humorous quite like Stephen Adly Guirgis. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is his first play since being awarded the Pulitzer in 2015 for Between Riverside and Crazy. This new work is a snapshot of the struggling residents of a New York City halfway house, surrounded by an unwelcoming neighborhood and staffed by those whose lifestyles aren’t much healthier. It’s a sprawling script with over a dozen main characters to track. Many of the transactional relationships include elements of genuine affection and the ride is a profound one. Ultimately, though, it is not so much a tapestry as a sewing kit with each thread slightly touching the one beside it.
As the play opens, a group session is in progress. This initial conversation hits many predictable beats — drug use, sexual exploitation, and abuse — but also provides a quick introduction to the characters with whom we’ll spend the next three hours. We learn Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas) has gotten caught up in an Amway-style pyramid scheme while Munchies (Pernell Walker) is preoccupied with Nigerian caregiver Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard). There are glimpses of Wanda Wheels’ (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) elegance, the stranglehold that mentally ill mother Sonia (Wilemina Olivia Garcia) has over her bright daughter Tiana (Viviana Valeria), and the familiar relationship pattern fragile Bella (Andrea Syglowski) is recreating with lesbian in command Sarge (Liza Colón-Zayas). Always quick to say, “no,no,no” is Rockaway Rosie (Elizabeth Canavan). Taking center stage at the top is the clever rapper Little Melba Diaz (Kara Young). In the corner is morbidly obese Betty (Kristina Poe) whose surprise connection and subsequent blossoming is a highlight. And on the edge (and on edge) is the transgendered Venus Ramirez (a glorious Esteban Andres Cruz) a ferocious voice for those who insist on their rightful place. That list doesn’t include the rest of the staff compassionately portrayed by Victor Almazar, David Anzuelo, Sean Carajal, Molly Collier and Elizabeth Rodriguez.
Elizabeth Canavan ( Rockaway Rosie ), Liza Colón – Zayas ( Sarge ), Kara Young ( Lil Melba Diaz ) and Pernell Walker ( Munchies ). Photo Credit/ Monique Carboni.
As with other Guirgis plays, a subtle but clear picture of the outside world is also drawn. The city’s system is failing and the shortages of both supplies and care are making these lives unnecessarily challenging. A flock of goats tending the grass in a park uptown receives more devotion and support than any of the humans who are simply looking for a chance.
To hold all these tales, a skeleton of the tenement house dominates the set. The sparsely decorated central room of Narelle Sissons’ design also represents the office of the dedicated and overworked manager and occasionally the bedroom of an occupant. The area between the first row and the stage serves as the surrounding alleyways. Director John Ortiz places much of the action on the house front steps audience left and a bench audience right making the viewing experience a bit like a tennis match. Additional focus is achieved with lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger while the mood rises and falls with sound and compositions by Elisheba Ittoop.
Haunting and moving, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is like taking in a gallery filled with the faces of those whom New Yorkers breeze past every day. Though their full stories are not on the display, the images will sear into you. Note that the material is strictly adult, containing nudity and simulated sex and drug use. The limited engagement co-produced by LAByrinth Theater Company has already been extended through Sunday, January 5. Regular tickets begin at $70 and are available online at atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues).