First seen in London this past March as part of the Donmar Warehouse's annual American Imports season, Stephen Adly Guirgis's impressive prison drama Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train now transfers for a limited West End season.
Onstage at the intimate Arts Theatre, we're presented with Narelle Sissons' mini-maze of gangplanks and wire-fencing depicting the Rykers prison yard where hard cases are caged and isolated even during their few minutes of daily sunshine. Here, a young Angel Cruz is awaiting the outcome of his trial for shooting ('in the ass') the leader of a cult that's brainwashed his best friend, while former crack addict-cum-serial killer and now born-again Christian Lucius Jenkins is counting the days and minutes until his death sentence is exacted.
Beyond tracking these two inmates on their roads to retribution, it's difficult to pin down exactly what this play is about. And that's no weakness. Adly Guirguis' script is deliciously multi-layered and morally ambiguous. It digs deep into big themes of religion and responsibility, guilt and forgiveness, friendship and faith as well as divine versus federal justice and, most fundamentally, right versus wrong. But there are no easy, pat answers. You need to work the answers out for yourself - which means you'll be pondering the questions and remembering this wonderful play for a long time to come.
It's especially memorable for the sharp and punchy direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman (though best known as one of Hollywood's consummate character actors, he demonstrates a keen talent behind the scenes here) who coaxes some blistering performances out of his five-strong cast.
As the principals, Ron Cephas Jones and John Ortiz, a co-founder of New York's LAByrinth Theater Company from which the piece is born, are nothing short of outstanding, with multiple award nominations surely in their future. Cephas Jones' Lucius is a bundle of gospel rap and wiry energy, providing solace and (ironically) moral guidance for Ortiz's Angel, who treads a finely judged line between little boy lost and angry outsider. The explosive exchanges between this pair are superb.
In supporting roles, Elizabeth Canavan is great as Angel's lippy lawyer whose compassion clouds her judgment, and Salvatore Inzerillo makes the most of his monologue as a witness to Lucius' execution.
The one cast change since the production's Donmar days is that of Valdez, the prison guard who finds his pleasure in the pain of his prison wards. Nestor Serrano has taken over from David Zayas. Unfortunately, while perfectly adequate, Serrano doesn't bring quite the same creepy combination of menace and irony, which makes Valdez seem a less significant factor in onstage proceedings.
But don't let that minor niggle discourage you from seeing one of the most provocative plays on the London stage. More please!
- Terri Paddock