After several unnecessary scenes, Cruz finds himself next to Lucius Jenkins (Theodore M. Snead), a serial killer trying to evade extradition to Florida and certain execution, and the dramatic engine finally gets revving.
Under Tovah Nu¤ez's seamless direction, Jenkins pushes the buttons of a sadistic guard (Jeffrey A. Schmidt) as he simultaneously charms and befriends Cruz in an outdoor recreation area. In a nice piece of actor's craftsmanship, Snead transforms himself from bug-eyed crank to religious fanatic to murderous monster.
Guirgis, a native New Yorker and colleague of Philip Seymour Hoffman, is considered one of the finest young playwrights working today. However, despite considerable virtuosity in his dialogue (and an abundance of F-words), there isn't enough story to carry the two-hour show. Eliminating 30 or so minutes from the script would concentrate its power in the highly charged scenes between Cruz and Lucius.
Two of the five characters are unnecessary. A second guard (S. Wayne Melnick) and Cruz's attorney (Jen Meharg) address the audience in cardboard speeches filled with aphorisms and pointless exposition. However, a crucial religious conversion near the end of the play is not even dramatized.
With chain link and barbed wire, Mercedes L. Schaum's set creates a chest-tightening sense of confinement. And lighting designer Joe Doran punctuates a number of dramatic moments with shadows and silhouettes.
I can't pretend to unravel the tangle of issues of faith that Guirgis weaves. In fact, no single theme seems to crystallize by the end of the play. With some clarifications and a little trimming here and there, this might have become an astonishing piece of work. But even as it is, there's enough dazzling dialogue to make the show worth seeing. Jerrell Nickerson
"Jesus Hopped the A-Train" continues through July 25 at the Little Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets are $18 ($10 for students). Call 282-2620.
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