Playwright: Stephen Adly Guirgis. At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark. Phone: 773-338-2177; $15-$25. Runs through: Dec. 6
Comedian Kathy Griffin jokes how vacuous celebrities like Paris Hilton frequently find Jesus in prison. Griffin wonders why they can't find him in better places.
Griffin's Jesus in jail riff got a cheap laugh at her recent Chicago Theatre engagement, but that same topic gets a serious examination across town at the Raven Theatre.
In Jesus Hopped the A Train, a 2000 prison drama by playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, two incarcerated men facing murder charges try to find some form of solace through faith. Whether their sentiments are genuine or a ruse is up for debate in Guirgis' drama, which receives a respectable if not revelatory production at the Raven.
Jesus Hopped the A Train concerns a Latino guy named Angel Cruz ( Esteban Andres Cruz ) who is imprisoned at Rikers Island after he shoots a Korean-American religious leader in the butt. It's a retaliatory effort to get back at Reverend Kim ( a clear allusion to Moonies founder Sun Myung Moon ) , since Angel feels he's responsible for entrapping a close friend into what he believes is a religious cult.
It's at Ryker's Island prison where Angel meets Lucius Jenkins ( a tall and amusingly sassy Bradford Stevens ) , a mass-murderer-turned-born-again Christian so notorious that even prison guard D'Amico ( an earnest Greg Caldwell ) treats him like a celebrity.
The bulk of the play is made up of interactions between Angel and Lucius during their outdoor exercise time. They form an uneasy friendship, flinging accusations at each other as they goad each other to be accountable for their actions.
Both men have the specter of death hanging over them, since Reverend Kim's death after a botched operation means Angel could face the death penalty. Meanwhile, Lucius awaits the news whether or not he will be extradited to Florida to face execution.
Filling in on the action is Angel's public defense attorney Mary Jane Hanrahan ( a no-nonsense Joann Montemurro ) , who takes on his case even though she knows he's guilty. Lucius and Angel are also tormented by the sadistic prison guard Valdez ( Warren Levon, who isn't up to snuff with his characterization or menacing presence ) .
Director Michael Menendian's production isn't perfect, but neither is Guirgis' play. Though Jesus Hopped the A Train has street cred-worthy dialogue like in Guirgis' Our Lady of 121st Street, its structure is too disjointed with non-incarcerated characters addressing the audience to explain themselves and to further the plot along.
What is genuine is Cruz's conflicted performance. From his simpering attempts to recite the Lord's Prayer to his swaggering boasts of what he'll do when he wins his freedom, Cruz's gets to the heart of Angel with a spot-on authenticity that is both comic and tragic.