by The Stranger

Azeotrope, a small, new theater company with a mission to produce work about the “underrepresented” and “marginalized,” is filling a small underground black box at ACT with profanity. For the first few minutes of Jesus Hopped the A Train, a prisoner at Rikers Island stumbles pitifully through the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who aren’t in heaven—who aren’t? Fuck!… Our father, who art in heaven, how… how… how… fuck!” A prisoner on a balcony above shouts, “Shut the fuck up!” The exchange falls quickly into minutes of expletive-bending ridiculousness: “Shut the fuckety-fuck up!” “You shut the fuckety-fuck up!” “Both of y’all shut the fuck up!”

Far, far more terrifying than a bunch of underslept, foul-mouthed prisoners is the guard entrusted with their care, the prowling Valdez (Ray Tagavilla). We must all be tired of Tagavilla being called out as a high point in virtually every production in which he takes part, but it must be said again: He is a superior actor. His Valdez is a man who takes joy in asserting his power and inflicting cruelties small and large. He has the relaxed, menacing walk of a person who operates from within the supreme sureness of his moral position. He chews gum and smiles broadly and somehow eats the air around him until there’s not enough oxygen for anyone else in his presence—a jailhouse Darth Vader.

The prisoners are Angel (Richard Nguyen Sloniker), a young kid who’s in jail for a single shooting he feels was justified, and Lucius (Dumi), a serial killer who has, up until Valdez’s assignment here, been under the supervision of an affable corn-fed-looking guard (Patrick Allcorn) whose wife sends home-baked treats. It’s sickly compelling to watch Lucius’s face as Valdez stalks up to him the first time. It takes him a few seconds to realize he’s fallen from being treated like a person to being treated like a thing, and Dumi perfectly executes the instant face drop from smile into set-jawed resignation.

The thrust of the play is the battle to justify our moral transgressions—Lucius having found God and wholesale forgiveness, Angel trying to make the case to himself and his public defender (Angela DiMarco) that what he did was morally correct even if it was violent and illegal, and Valdez, whose chilling righteousness is the clearest wrong.