Kudos to SF Playhouse for its part in introducing Bay Area audiences to Stephen Adly Guirgis. Guirgis is a member of New York's LAByrinth Theater Company a collective that includes playwright John Patrick Shanley and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Guirgis has been making a name for himself during the past decade as an actor, director, television writer, and more particularly, the author of several engagingly sharp and gritty off-Broadway comedies.
SF Playhouse had a hit on its hands last season with its slick West Coast premiere of Guirgis's 2002 Our Lady of 121st Street. In that play, a circle of former Catholic schoolmates from Harlem reconvenes in the old neighborhood for the funeral of their bad ol' but beloved teacher, Sister Rose. Alternately saint and sinner, more or less like the rest of them, Rose is seemingly larger than life now that she's gone. Really gone: as the play opens, someone has swiped her embalmed remains from the mortuary, throwing the whole service into limbo as the characters, in a state of anxious expectancy, rip open both fresh and long-festering wounds. Together their stories slyly interrogate the nature of free will, right and wrong, and our ambivalent reliance on forms of moral accountability. Artistic director Bill English's shrewd casting and razor-sharp staging brought the high-spirited ensemble work and Guirgis's loosely interlocked scenes to life.
In Jesus Hopped the "A" Train, a Guirgis play originally produced in 2000 and now at SF Playhouse, a young Puerto Rican man named Angel Cruz (Daveed Diggs) finds himself in jail after bursting into the church of a cult leader responsible for brainwashing his best friend and shooting the former in the ass. Angel, having tried every other means of rescuing his childhood pal, cannot see much of a crime in this desperate act. Mary Jane Hanrahan (Susi Damilano), the public defender initially assigned to his case, begs to differ. Yet something draws the haggard but upright lawyer to the recalcitrant Angel's side. In a monologue addressed to the audience, she recounts a childhood memory of a similar (if not quite as illicit) act by her working-class Irish father.
Angel's plight and Mary Jane's legal defense make up one half of the play. Brutally assaulted in jail and in dire threat of being killed after his target, the Sun Myung Moonlike Reverend Kim, unexpectedly dies, Angel soon finds himself in a special protective custody lockdown wing at Rikers Island prison. The wing is overseen by a guard named Valdez (Gabriel Marin), whose frustration with institutionalized justice has given way to sadism. A deeply shaken Angel shares the yard with a kindly born-again serial killer named Lucius Jenkins (Carl Lumbly) as the latter fights extradition back to Florida, where he would face the death penalty.
As an exploration of ethics and the nature of personal responsibility, Jesus Hopped the "A" Train takes a slightly different route from Our Lady but winds up in notably similar territory. It teases out volatile questions from complacent notions of faith and justice while demonstrating the playwright's marked gift for dialogue that is gritty but also dazzlingly vibrant and ferociously funny. English again shows judiciousness in direction and casting, and Lumbly in the role of Lucius is a real coup. Lumbly (the Berkeley actor best known for work in films and television shows such as Alias) turns in a finely tuned performance that is one of the best things on a Bay Area stage at the moment. Also, Diggs, a relatively young actor recently seen in Magic Theatre's production of Elaine May's triptych Moving Along, continues to prove himself capable of great things.