"Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" is an angry play about prison: dark and dirty with storm clouds throughout but brilliant in telling the stories of two very different inmates.
Angel Cruz (Carmelo Lopez), a former bicycle messenger, is accused of murder in the killing of a preacher. He does not understand why he is in prison because he did not shoot to kill. The evangelist was shot in the butt, Cruz claimed, because the cult he led stole the mind of his best friend.
Lucius Jenkins (Hugh Davis), a convicted serial killer, is fighting extradition to Florida. The man who murdered eight people has found the Lord and won't let anyone forget it. When he's not working out, he spouts about Jesus. He's hard and relentless in his preaching.
Their fluorescent tangerine jumpsuits provide the only color in this grim portrayal. Early in the production, it becomes obvious that neither Cruz nor Jenkins has any way out. The play is all about futility as the prisoners share their struggles with the audience through a string of intense narratives told from their respective cells.
And that is precisely what makes this drama so intimate. Audience members sit in seats that surround the twin prison cells. Plunked in the middle of the theater's seating area, the cells dominate the action with the real stage playing a minimal role as the scene of a few heated meetings between Cruz and his pathetic public defender, Mary Jane (Jennifer Linch). The attorney, whose ethics are at issue, must decide how to defend her client. This story line provides the only diversion from the dismal prison plot.
The antagonism is all left in the paws of mad dog guard Valdez (Dan Walker), who torments each prisoner equally -- working his club well as he denies outdoor privileges. He's like a mean wrestler.
The acting -- all the way around -- is fiery, but it is Davis who stands out. His portrayal of a born-again mass murderer is riveting. Is the convict really a deranged psychotic serial killer who was molested as a child? Or has he become a Bible-pusher who found Jesus at age 42?
Either way, the character could not be further away from Lopez's Cruz. Lopez, a former Marine studying theater at Erie Community College's City Campus, made his acting debut in " 'A' Train" last year at the New Phoenix. The hopelessness of his character's situation surfaces repeatedly in angry expletives during tense meetings with his lawyer.
Author Stephen Adly Guirgis was also motivated by anger in writing " 'A' Train" in 2001 after a close friend joined a cult. " 'A' Train" received praise when it played off-Broadway before heading to London, where it was reported that Guirgis acted as the prison guard. The play premiered in London's Donmar Warehouse in 2002 before moving to the West End to find Madonna as a fan.
The New Phoenix Theatre playhouse, located at 95 Johnson Park, had been home to a soup kitchen when executive director Richard Lambert sold his Allentown home to purchase it a decade ago. The return of " 'A' Train" marks the 10th season for this alternative theater company run by Lambert and artistic director Robert Waterhouse, who directed the production.
Its intensity is exhausting to experience. Depressing? Yes, but it provides a necessary reminder. When you leave, you're glad you have the freedom to do so.
JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
WHEN: Through Oct. 8
WHERE: New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park
TICKETS: $15 to $20