A review of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” staged by Azeotrope at Seattle’s ACT Theatre through June 30, 2012.

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

Profound matters of guilt, faith and contrition are central to the gritty, contemporary plays of New York dramatist Stephen Adly Guirgis, as is evident in a current Seattle staging of one of his most riveting works.

Like a modern-day Dostoevsky (with more dark humor), Guirgis hurls you into the ethical quandaries of the lower depths in his breakthrough 2000 work “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.” The play is finally getting its local debut in a bracing production from the highly capable Azeotrope Theatre.

Angel (played with febrile intensity and wariness by Richard Nguyen Sloniker) faces an attempted-murder rap after shooting the leader of a Moonie-like religious cult. Lucius (played splendidly by Dumi) is a born-again Christian facing extradition for crimes not revealed — for maximum impact — until midplay.

The two are a study in contrasts — initially. Lucius is African-American, a beaming convert and street-wise prophet, who spends his allotted hour a day out of isolation jogging in place and praising the Lord. Angel, a Puerto Rican, is a desperate, sullen, first-time offender, who attracts the interest of a stressed public defender, Mary Jane (Angela DiMarco).

Through encounters and monologues, sharp shifts of fortune and impassioned debates, Guirgis exposes, then strips away, both men’s defenses. What is then revealed? The human desire to justify sins and escape the consequences of them. (Similar concerns marked another play of his just performed here, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”)

Guirgis has a tremendous ear for the poetry and profanity of urban speech, in artfully earthy dialogue that both masks and reveals. It’s laced swith gallows humor, but also abrupt shifts of the moral high ground.

Just when you think the spiritual insights of Lucius trump Angel’s cocky lack of responsibility for his crime, the dynamic whiplashes. You can’t get too comfortable with assumptions about either man. Or about Mary Jane, also mercurial and ethically slippery in her quasi-legal defense of Angel.

Two prison guards, in starker contrast, become opposing faces of God: good-hearted and merciful Charlie (Patrick Allcorn), and brutal, damning Valdez.

In the latter, heftier role, excellent Ray Tagavilla is utterly repellent, but Valdez’s sense of retribution is not so easily denounced.

“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” (the title refers to a spiritual vision on the subway) doesn’t have the structural finesse of Guirgis’s 2011 Broadway hit, “The Motherf**ker with the Hat.”

Thanks to director Desdemona Chiang’s skill, Azeotrope’s staging in the small Eulalie Scandiuzzi space at ACT Theatre builds with muscular assurance. The way is paved by the fine cast, Deanna Zibello’s smart set design and Jessica Trundy’s lighting.

“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” is just the merger of sweaty realism and probing lyricism the American theater needs now. And Seattle needs a company like Azeotrope to tackle it.