Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has spent a lot of time working with prison populations, so it’s rather astonishing that his play, set on Riker’s Island, is so utterly unconvincing much of the time. And as directed by Ron O.J. Parson, this is yet another production that substitutes long stretches of high-decibel noise for emotional truth.

Following the travails of Angel, a young Puerto Rican who shoots a Moonie-style cult leader when he recruits Angel’s best friend, Guirgis’s play purports to be an exploration of morality, justice, and jailhouse salvation. But the plot is peppered with improbabilities, the worst being the fact that Angel’s public defender is so egregiously unfit for the task that we can’t believe she ever made it through a pricey private school, let alone law school. Stephanie Childers as Angel’s attorney hits one note of whining self-involvement throughout, and Parsons’s decision to have her address the audience as if we were the jury only adds to our discomfort. Ricardo Gutierrez’s hard-ass prison guard is also rife with cliches.

But the intriguing Eric Aviles as Angel and E. Milton Wheeler as Lucius, a serial killer who’s supposedly found Jesus, do have some nice bits during lapses in the histrionics. And Keith Kupferer as an unemployed prison guard does a fine job with one of Guirgis’s better moments, a monologue about what it’s like to witness an execution.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.