Ever hear the self-help wisdom that "the opposite of fear is faith"? Or the simple advice about "taking one day at a time"? And then there are those horribly helpless moments when the only possible suggestion to give another human being is the command to "breathe." In Jesus Hopped the "A" Train, the 2002 drama penned by NYC theater insider (and frequent Philip Seymour Hoffman collaborator) Stephen Adly Guirgis, there's a world of 12-step-program—friendly concepts holed up in the solitary cells at Rikers Island that house two bad guys. And that's what makes the overused "condemnation versus redemption" contemplations come alive; so clever is Guirgis' dialogue that we get rolled up in the quickly paced action, leaving the unanswerable heavy stuff to linger in the mind: When is killing wrong? When is killing right?

There are five characters in the story, and each bears a full story of his or her own that we get to share. Behind bars are the seasoned-but-saved Lucius Jackson, aka Superstar (Dennis Neal), who's awaiting extradition to Florida for heinous crimes, and a traumatized newcomer, Angel Cruz (Roger Floyd). Never missing an opportunity to be cruel and punitive, officer Valdez (Jeremy Wood) has "asshole" written all over him from the moment he replaces a nice guard (Lawrence Benjamin) who gets fired for sharing Oreos and other contraband.

Representing life outside the bars is attorney Mary Jane Hanrahan (Alexis Jackson), a seemingly unblemished model of correctitude — until she becomes obsessed with trying to help Angel beat his murder rap. He may have shot a cult leader in the ass in order to rescue his best friend, but it wasn't the wound that dropped the reverend, it was the resultant heart attack; Angel didn't mean to kill him. Damn those consequences that follow rash decisions.

The set artfully accommodates all of the characters. The upper level serves as the outdoor holding pens where the prisoners are allowed one hour of fresh air every day. There's no mistaking the metaphor for Angel's daily dose of sunlight. The bottom level holds the conference table, where Angel and his attorney meet. With no excess staging, every move counts.

The ensemble cast members admirably anchor their well-cast characters. As the larger-than-life Lucius, Neal gives us one hell of a show; he is a powerful man — in his stature, in his faith, in his demons. His soulful, prayerlike monologue, spoken as he jumps through his exercise routine, is at once funny and pathetic. There are more than a few moments like this in the play — not knowing whether to laugh or cry at the inhumanity of humanity. That's the signature of director John DiDonna, who worked in collaboration with Seth Kubersky and Joel Warren to present the local premiere of the Guirgis sensation.

Only one thing threw me off: Chamillionaire's "Ridin'?" was playing in the pre-show music lineup, and it just didn't lock the vibe. The directors were going for something with a street, spiritual sense — but rather than the rapper's overblown commercial hit, how about something more New York, like "My Philosophy" by KRS-One (recommended by our music editor)? Real life's tough, not a thug's fantasy.


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