A train worth hopping on, kind of

By Kevin de Vlaming

Jesus Hopped the A Train occurred as the result of an unlikely mix of elements. The recipe: take one part former CFL player turned thespian, one part local television personality dabbling in theatrics and a couple of producers borrowed from Ground Zero Theatre and Hit & Myth productions, then mix liberally into a base of aspiring Company of Rogues actors. The resulting play is not unlike a sort of gruel, in that it’s satisfying in its own way, yet it won’t leave anyone particularly hungry for another helping.

The play is focused around two inmates at Riker’s Island. One is a jailed serial killer, the other a streetwise young man who was involved in the death of a religious cult leader. The former has found comfort and redemption in God, while the latter, though stubbornly insistent that he has done right by a higher power than the court’s system, is agnostic.

The story unfolds through conversations between Lucius Jenkins, the serial killer, Valdes, his sadistic guard, Angel Cruz, the young man being tried for the death of the cult leader, and Mary Jane Hanrahan, Angel’s passionately determined lawyer. The narrative takes well over 120 minutes to present itself in full, and due to slow and often redundant dialogue, it actually feels even longer.

While the play doesn’t come off as preachy with its religious messages, it certainly does give the impression that the intended audience would be a high school gym filled with misguided kids. It presents itself like an extended collection of moral life lessons reminding street kids that violence is not the answer, and the harsh portrayal of life on Riker’s Island adds a complimentary ‘scared straight’ sort of vibe.

The quality of acting is mixed. Former CFL player Khari Jones gives the most convincing and poignant performance of the bunch as the spiritually reformed Lucius Jenkins. Jones brings an undeniable charisma to the role, while still leaving audience members with the vaguely uneasy sense that Jenkins is a man capable of cold-blooded murder. Company of Rogues actor Jesse Wheeler also gives a heartfelt performance as the conflicted Angel Cruz.

The performance starts to deteriorate with the secondary characters. Jill Belland, host of CityTV’s The City Show, puts on a laughably flimsy Brooklyn accent as Cruz’s lawyer. Her interaction with Cruz would be borderline believable on its own, however a fair portion of the play relies on soliloquies, which Belland sells unconvincingly. Dean Marinos also fails to properly acquire the role of the embittered prison guard, Valdez. Marinos, another Company of Rogues veteran, lends no depth to the character, instead presenting him more as a caricature than anything thought-provoking or worthwhile.

It’s no stretch to suggest that Jones and Wheeler provide the greatest incentive to catch the A Train, though creative use of stage space and inspired lighting also prevent the production from fully tripping over its unwarranted length. It isn’t so without merit as to warrant crucifixion, but Jesus Hopped the A Train isn’t a play anyone should feel guilty about missing.