16 November 2017


by Kirk Woodward

[I hadn’t expected Kirk to return to Rick On Theater so soon after making such a terrific contribution as “The Red Letter Plays, Continued” (1 November), my friend’s “continuation” of my reportage on the Signature Theatre Company’s revivals of Suzan-Lori Parks’s two Scarlet Letter-inspired plays, In the Blood and Fucking A.  (My reports were posted on 12 and 17 October, respectively.)  But, lo and behold, here he is again with a consideration of Frankie Valli in concert—some 55 years after he fronted The Four Seasons (as chronicled in the recent juke box stage musical Jersey Boys and the 2014 film adaptation).  In “Frankie,” Kirk focuses on Valli’s musicality, his singing and his stage presence.  It’s not so much a review as a personal appreciation from a long-time fan—though Kirk sees Valli’s flaws as a performer as well as his many strengths and assets.  Like all of Kirk’s posts on ROT, “Frankie” reveals some profound points about rock and pop performance and the effects of longevity on our veteran musical performers.]

Enjoy ‘em while we’ve got ‘em . . . .

Sometimes an appearance by a performer comes with a question. Lawrence Olivier had memory trouble for a while – would that keep him from remembering his lines in The Merchant of Venice? Richard Burton had back trouble – would that make him less effective in the revival of Private Lives? Any numbers of singers have had substance abuse and behavioral problems – will they show up for their concerts? Will they be late? Will they be able to perform?

When I saw the singer Frankie Valli at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, on November 3, 2017, the question – one could sense that the audience had it in mind – was: would Valli be able to sing the piercing falsetto notes that he sang on the famous Four Seasons recordings of the 1960’s and 1970’s? Valli is, after all, 83 years old.

The answer, to the great relief of those of us who were there, is yes, he can.

There were several aspects of the concert that can be identified as concessions to age. For one thing, in the glory days of the Four Seasons, there were four singers, including Valli, some of whom also played instruments, and all of whom did dance steps.

Since the 1970’s, Valli has toured as “Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons,” with four other singers (Todd  Furnier, Brian Brigham, Brandon Brigham, and Landon Beard, according to Wikipedia), none of them original Seasons, backing him up vocally, and doing the Temptations-derived dance moves that Valli doesn’t do any more. (He did essay a couple of cautious choreographed movements late in the show.)

I am pretty certain as well that the keys of the songs have been lowered, so that Valli’s high notes don’t have to be quite as high any more as they used to be. If I’m correct about this, however, the use of the lower keys is nevertheless not particularly distracting

Most importantly, Valli paces his concert (about an hour and a half long) well, particularly in regard to the spectacular notes of some of the songs. By my count he did not sing anything using falsetto until the third number, and then only sparingly – the songs are sequenced so he doesn’t have to.

Little by little, the falsetto sections get longer, until he is really belting them out in “Stay,” after which he said, the night I was there, “I think I hurt myself on that one.” By the end of the show, when the big hits (and terrific songs) like “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Bye Bye Baby,” and “Let’s Hang On” make their appearance, his high notes are strong. A stunning demonstration of this was an a cappella (that is, unaccompanied) verse of “Sherry,” sung by only Valli and the Four Seasons to brilliant effect.

I learned from an actor, Jarrod Spector, who played a remarkable Frankie Valli” in the musical Jersey Boys (which ran on Broadway from 2005 through 2017), that Valli advised him not to hit the falsetto notes too hard – to take it easy on them, not try to bellow each one. Valli clearly takes his own advice – he seems barely to open his mouth, which indicates that he is not overworking his vocal equipment. This may have something to do with why it has stayed in good shape for so long.

For that matter, Valli is by no means just a high note singer. His “regular” singing voice is notable – the listener can recognize it anywhere by its mix of clarity and growl. He would be a distinctive singer of popular songs if that were all the voice he had. The novelty of the high falsetto tones, of course, set the group apart from others, as did Brian Wilson’s pure falsetto tones for the Beach Boys. But Valli would probably have found a career path anyway…

Maybe in Las Vegas. He has acknowledged that his idol was Frank Sinatra. A good deal of his present show has a Vegas feel about it, a night club feel – although I suspect that some of the items that feel that way were added for the appearances of his concerts on Broadway in 2012, 2016, and 2017, particularly a sentimental film segment over a song called “Harmony” I hadn’t previously heard.

I have always loved the songs the Four Seasons recorded. For a long time I had to defend this opinion, but the task has gotten easier since the massive success of Jersey Boys. The fact is that the music of the Four Seasons has always occupied an odd space between Las Vegas style entertainment, doo wop singing, novelty acts, and rock. To specify:

Las Vegas style entertainment

I felt this both times I saw the original group, in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1964, I noted in my journal that “to my surprise [I was already a fan of their records], I didn’t like them at all,” which I believe I wrote because I thought they had a “night club” rather than a “rock” feel to their performance. I was more specific when, after the second time I saw them, in 1967, I wrote:

Last night, Friday, Patti and I saw the Four Seasons give a good show at the Convention Center. No other groups; they played two halves, with intermission. Their humor low, poor – about underwear, hernias, etc.

I considered that kind of humor to be typical of Las Vegas style entertainment of the time, like the Rat Pack. To be fair, I did continue in the journal:

Sound and songs fine – I was impressed by the quality of their material, like “Bye Bye Baby,” “Don’t Think Twice” [!], “Candy Girl,” “Don’t Worry About Me,” “Tell It To the Rain,” and especially “Let’s Hang On.”

Doo wop

From the beginning the Four Seasons used a typical doo wop lineup of four singers, with one a tenor voice (Valli), one a bass, and so on.

Novelty acts

Valli’s super-distinctive falsetto provided an irresistible and essentially unique “hook” for the songs the group sang.


My definition of that genre, when I first saw them, was I’m sure restrictive, and I believe many rock critics also had the problem of thinking the Four Seasons weren’t pure rockers – which they weren’t. But heard in concert, for example when I saw them, their songs, well, rock.

Valli’s audiences respond to him. At the November 3 concert, the crowd was mostly on the older side – a friend said she felt like she was at Lourdes! But its loyalty was rewarded. He seems to inspire personal loyalty too – his musical director, the flamboyant and distinctive keyboard player Robby Robinson, has worked with Valli for forty years, and the night I saw the show, Joe Long, who was the group’s first major replacement (from 1965 through 1973 according to Wikipedia), was in the house and Valli introduced him from the stage.

In addition to all the factors I’ve listed here, part of Valli’s appeal, these days, is that performing at his time of his life gives him a kind of gallantry. He is not a “warm” personality on stage. But he is a courageous one to go out at his age and sing vocally daunting music the way he does, and to sing it well. At the concert I heard, his voice got stronger with each song, and he sang with grit and determination. One can hardly ask for more. Long may he wave.

11 November 2017

'1789: The French Revolution' (Theatre de la Jeune Lune, 1989)

[In April 1989, I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to do some research on a 1985 production of the Guthrie Theater.  This was part of a multi-city project and it was my practice while I was spending a few days in such important U.S. theater centers as Chicago, Seattle, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Houston, and Louisville, along with Minneapolis, to try to see performances at the theater where I was conducting my research and any other production house that was presenting something while I was in town.  As it happened, the Guthrie was between productions, with a show having just closed and the next one in rehearsal.  So I looked around and selected the experimental theater company Theatre de la Jeune Lune to see during my brief stay in the Twin Cities.  Theatre de la Jeune Lune was in performance with a startling company-created production, 1789: The French Revolution, at the Guthrie Lab Theater .  So on  Sunday, 16 April  1989, I went over to the former warehouse along the banks of the Mississippi River. 

[1789, described by Jeune Lune dramaturg Paul Walsh as “a reverie of music, spectacle and drama,” was written by Barbra Berlovitz Desbois, Vincent Gracieux, Felicity Jones, and Robert Rosen, with Christopher Bayes and Paul Walsh.  The music was composed by Chan Poling and directed by Eric Jensen.  The production was directed by Dominique Serrand, with sets designed by Vincent Gracieux, lights by Mark Somerfield, and costumes by Andrea McCormack.  

[The Theatre de la Jeune Lune, a name reminiscent of Ariane Mnouchkine’s international experimental troupe, Théâtre du Soliel, was a nationally respected theater company based in Minneapolis.  (It won the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 2005.)  The company operated from 1978 to 2008 and was renowned for its visually stunning, highly physical productions.  The troupe’s style was derived from clown, mime, dance, and opera, based on the teaching of Jacques Lecoq, the French actor, mime, and acting teacher  with whom many of the founders had studied.  The theater’s reputation also stemmed from the reimagined classics they staged and their productions of highly ambitious original work, as exemplified by 1789.  I’ll give a brief history of the company after the production report, which I wrote within days after I saw the show.  (I have lightly reedited this report to make it more accessible 28 years later.)]

In case it has escaped anyone’s attention, this is the bicentennial of the French Revolution.  In various cities in America, there have been events to note this anniversary with nearly the solemnity and spirit with which we approached our own two-hundredth birthday thirteen years ago.  Books have been published, speeches made, and visits from French dignitaries scheduled.  The acknowledgement by the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, a Minneapolis experimental theatre company, makes clear some of the disturbing problems of the French Revolution. 

1789: The French Revolution (which carries an additional subtitle of Feast of Rage, Feast of Reason) doesn’t mean to make this point, and, indeed, tries to gloss over it in two ways, one intentional and the other, I imagine, inadvertent.  The company says, on the words of composer for the project, Chan Poling: “We are here to celebrate a particular revolution, but the idea of revolution—of a class or of a mind—is being examined here as well.”  Nonetheless, as a piece of theater, this sprawling, boisterous environmental production has some interesting ideas, particularly as an exemplar of the use of space as described in Richard Schechner’s Environmental Theater (Hawthorn Books, 1973). 

The Guthrie Lab Theater, at 700 North 1st Street in Minneapolis [now the LAB Theater], in the old Warehouse District way over on the banks of the Mississippi, is a huge barn of a place, some 6,000 square feet of space.  My guess is that the room is about 65 feet long and 35 feet wide, with a ceiling height of about 35 feet.  You enter the arena—for that is what it feels like—from above, winding down a metal staircase in the corner of one end.  As you descend, you pass a sort of double wooden bridge about 12 feet off the floor across the width of the room.  The bridge, approximately one-third of the way from the entrance end, connects two catwalks along the two long walls, also at about 12-foot heights.  Under the bridge is a small, wooden platform, about eight feet square and three feet high, jutting out into the space.  At the far end is a kind of thrust stage, approximately 15 feet square, decorated with a huge, blue column and, at the rear, a flat, red proscenium arch and drape.  This is the only color in the set (designed by Vincent Gracieux and lit by Mark Somerfield); all the other construction being raw wood, undecorated and plain.

The audience area is made up of two pairs of tiered platforms with metal folding chairs along the side walls between the bridge and the thrust stage.  Each pair of platforms is split by an entrance into the space at about the middle of each wall.  Other entrances are at either end—one under the bridge and the other through the false proscenium—and above on the catwalks. 

Having been one of the first to enter the playing space, I took a seat that looked like a good vantage point.  As more people came in, some stayed in the center, around the small platform, though there were seats available.  This was the first I realized that spectators were allowed to stay in the playing area; no one said anything while we waited upstairs or as we entered. 

The performance started rather abruptly as actors dressed in 18th-century costumes (by Andrea McCormack) moved into the space, threading their way through the spectators as through a milling crowd.  Other performers entered onto the bridge as, below on the platform, a village representative of the “Third Estate”—the peasants—urged the citizens to tell him what issues to raise at the meeting of the three estates called by the king.  More actors came in, gently moving the spectators aside as they made their way to the platform to talk with the delegate.

This all proceeded a little self-consciously I thought, since the spectators on the floor did not know whether to participate or act merely as living scenery, and the actors only dealt with them in a perfunctory way, never addressing them or confronting them except to make a path through them.  Still, the idea seemed interesting: to explore the French Revolution by immersing the audience in the struggle perhaps the way many peasants got involved—swept up in the tide without really knowing the script.  Unfortunately, this never developed.

After a few more similar scenes about the gathering of the representatives of the Third Estate and laying out the historical background, the second episode of 1789 moved on to Versailles for the assembly.  Now the audience became the assembled delegates and spectators in the Salle de Menus Plaisirs, and members of the cast ushered those left standing to seats in the tiers, ending the commingling of the cast and audience for the rest of the performance.  (The Salle des Menus Plaisirs was the hall in Versailles occupied by the royal department of the Maison du Roi responsible for the ceremonies, events, and festivities  of the royal household.  The meeting of the États généraux took place there on 5 May 1789.)  Occasionally, at rehearsed moments, the actors playing delegates would turn to us and appear to invoke our participation, delivering remarks our way as if addressing fellow delegates in the galleries, but no real response was anticipated or, if it came, used.  It was a phony audience-participation set-up, and probably little any spectator could have done would have changed the conduct of the performance.  Again, it would have been interesting to see the company take some chances with real audience involvement, even risking an argument that might diverge from the written speeches.  Failing that challenge, the fake direct address employed seemed very hollow, and I wished they had stuck with a conventional representational performance.

The end of the play brought one more attempt at contact with the audience.  To emphasize the principle that the grain and food horded by the aristocrats and clergy belonged to the people who worked the land that grew it, the cast brought out baskets of French bread and passed them among the spectators.  We were supposed to share the bread with one another, but it was an empty moment for me, as the baskets were passed around while the cast simply went back to the performance space and went on with the play, which by now had turned entirely sentimental.

It is in this sentimentality that 1789 loses its edge and renders the French Revolution a dreamy romance.  I suspect that it is unintentional, but the play turns into the kind of feel-good experience that Godspell was, right down to the bread as a substitute for Godspell’s wine.  At the end of the performance, as the cast laboriously decorated the floor with pretty, colored sand paintings of the slogans of the Revolution, a young man with a sweet tenor voice, sang the Declaration of the Rights of Man.  (The music was composed by Chan Poling and directed by Eric Jensen.)  It was a lyrical ballad, a lullaby, whereas, for my ears, what was called for was an angry, violent rendition, since the document, once passed by the National Assembly, was immediately trod into the ground by both the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionaries.  The Declaration—a demand for rights—was, after all, born of rage and died in the Terror.  It is not a sweet image.  Instead of Godspell, the theatrical model might have been a kind of reverse Marat/Sade in which sweet music accompanied brutal word images.

The play’s intentional mollification of the truth of the Revolution is the conceit that the year 1789, ending with the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, was idealistic and rational, that the Revolution sank into the Terror, anarchy, and civil war only afterwards.  A note in program makes this clear, stating: “For about a year, both crown and people appeared willing  to follow the lead of the patriots, but by the summer of 1790, political attitudes hardened and become irreconcilable.  France began its downward slide into civil war.”  Historically, this just was not so.  The peasants and the middle class were butchering aristocrats and clergy—as well as each other—practically right from the start.  The vaunted Declaration, however noble its sentiments, was never more than a piece of paper as far as the progress of the Revolution was concerned; it was never enacted or followed, unlike its models, the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

While the performances, by a company of 24 actors each playing multiple roles, were spirited and energetic, the performance style clashed with the language of the text.  Drawn from written works by numerous chroniclers of the time, among them Jean-Baptiste-Joseph de Lubersac, Bishop of Chartres (1740-1822); Victor Hugo (1802-85); Jacques Roux (1752-94); Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-94); Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778); and Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just (1767-94), the text by Barbra Berlovitz Desbois, Vincent Gracieux, Felicity Jones, Robert Rosen, with Christopher Bayes and Paul Walsh consistently sounded like proclamations and speeches, from which it was most likely compiled.  Nonetheless, the actors kept treating it like dialogue, and the resulting dichotomy made it all sound artificial without being theatrical.  Here was another half-measure which was ultimately unsatisfying because the lines never sounded like anybody really talking, nor were they stylized theatricality.

Stylization and theatricality were not altogether out of director Dominique Serrand’s mind.  There were scenes set at the Palais Royal, for instance, in which patrons of a Paris café staged revolutionary playlets.  The patrons were costumed in bits and pieces of anachronistic clothing from the 1930s and ’40s.  In addition, the make-up for the nobles and their clerical allies was often non-realistic: whiteface and black shadows, apparently to emphasize their inhumanity and soullessness.  Performance, however, never matched these visual notes. 

One possibility might have been to go all the way in performance with the formality suggested by the language, or reduce the language to more colloquial speech.  It might even have been interesting to see the citizens speak and behave colloquially while the aristocrats and clergy behaved with stylized formality.  (Dramaturg Walsh’s note addressed this possibility in passing when he wrote that the production “emulates the revolutionary search for a language that is at once new and old . . . .”)  Speechifying quickly becomes enervating, and all the energetic running around in the world will not vitalize it.

Ultimately, I was disappointed because the possibilities were so great and my expectations kept being raised, then dashed.  With the dimensions of the Guthrie Lab, the scope of the French Revolution—even a single year of it—and the stature of characters like kings, counts, bishops, revolutionaries, poets, painters, and orators, not to have flown, but to have stayed earthbound, is a shame.

[The Theatre de la Jeune Lune (French for “Theater of the New Moon”) was founded in France in 1978 by Dominique Serrand, Vincent Gracieux—both native Parisians—and Barbra Berlovitz—a Minneapolitan—who were later joined by Robert Rosen, all graduates of the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris.  Actor Steven Epp joined Jeune Lune in 1983.  (All these artists were participants in 1789, which was part of Jeune Lune’s tenth anniversary season.)  The company’s name was inspired by the verses of a poem by Bertolt Brecht which reads, “As the people say, at the moon’s change of phases / The new moon holds for one night long / The old moon in its arms “  (These verses are on several sites concerning Theatre de la Jeune Lune, including Wikipedia, as well as a 2008 profile of the company in American Theatre, but I was not able to identify the poem further—except that it was apparently written in 1919.)  According to Jeune Lune’s board chairman, the company saw itself as “the new moon forming out of the old.”

[In Jeune Lune’s early years, the company worked part of the time in Paris and part in Minneapolis.  It permanently settled in Minneapolis in 1985 and, in 1992, moved into the Minneapolis Warehouse District.  AP reporter and native Minnesotan Patrick Condon depicted the nascent company as ” a band of outsiders running the show—a motley crew of actors, writers and musicians in their 20s out to smash traditional notions of how to stage a play.”  The company was in “complete chaos, and that’s what was great. . ., Serrand recalls.  “We wanted to change theater but we didn’t have a clue how to do it.”  In 2001, the five founders officially became co-artistic directors, a collaborative directorate that gave everyone an equal voice in company decisions.

[The troupe was highly regarded for its hallmark practice of integrating Lecoq techniques of improvisatory and dynamically physical performance into the interpretations of Molière, Shakespeare, and Mozart, making for a characteristic performance style “with movement as a primary element of expression and character development.”  The company also employed innovative scenic designs as well as an acting style reminiscent of silent film star Charlie Chaplin and mime Marcel Marceau, combined with components of Commedia dell’arte and circus arts (including clowning).   Epp described Jeune Lune’s production approach: “We dissect the body in its movement, power and playfulness, and glean from that ways to apply that physicality to whatever material we’re working with, to galvanize the role and find what’s pertinent to a contemporary audience.”  As the company stated in the program for 1789, its credo was: “We are a theatre of directness, a theatre that speaks to the audience, that listens and heeds its response.  We believe that theatre is an event.  We are a theatre of emotions—an immediate theatre—a theatre that excites and uses a direct language—a theatre of the imagination.”

[In addition to reimagining classic plays and operas, Jeune Lune was known for its company-created original works.  Most notable was its 1992 creation of the Brecht-styled Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream, a fictionalized account of the making of the 1945 French film Les Enfants du Paradis, written by poet Jacques Prévert and directed by Marcel Carné.  The production was conceived as an inauguration of the troupe’s newly acquired permanent performance space in downtown Minneapolis.  The troupe used Brecht’s characteristic Epic Theater style by paralleling scenes from the film’s 1830s setting and the movie’s filming in the 1940s.  The audience, seated on the stage for the prologue, was encouraged to participate as witnesses to the events portrayed in the movie.  The Jeune Lune production received critical praise, winning the 1993 ATCA New Play Award (now known as the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and Citations).

[In 2005, the Theatre de la Jeune Lune was awarded the Regional Theatre Tony Award; they also received international praise when both Serrand and Gracieux were knighted by France  in the Order of Arts and Letters for their contributions to French culture.  In spite of critical acclaim, however, the company struggled in its later years to retain its audience.  By 2007, four of the five founding members had either left the company or stepped down from their leadership positions, leaving Serrand as the sole artistic director.  The company had also accumulated a debt of over $1 million and fought to stay solvent.  In June 2008, the Theatre de la Jeune Lune board of directors voted to sell its building and shut down its current operations.]

06 November 2017

'Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train'

Stephen Adly Guirgis has been around as a playwright since 1995 (with the one-act Race, Religion and Politics at HERE in lower Manhattan), so he’s been what’s usually called an “emerging playwright” for 22 years.  I’ve known his name for much of that time, but I’d still only seen one Guirgis play, the original production of  Our Lady of 121st Street in February 2003 at the Union Square Theatre.  Now Guirgis is the Residency One writer at the Signature Theatre Company, the successor to Suzan-Lori Parks, whose year-long term just ended, so I was glad to have a chance to see some more of his work.  The thing is, I don’t really remember much about Our Lady of 121st Street, so I’m sort of starting with a clean slate.

Guirgis, who turns 53 on 30 November, is now a Pulitzer Prize-winner (in 2015 for Between Riverside and Crazy, Atlantic Theater Company, 2014; Atlantic Theater Company/Second Stage Theatre, 2015; also 2015 Lucille Lortel Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Off Broadway Alliance Award) with a Broadway run to his name (The Motherfucker with the Hat, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 2011; nominee for 2011 Best Play Tony, Outstanding Play Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama League Award).  His first STC production is the current Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train; it will be followed by a revival of Our Lady of 121st Street in the spring of 2018 and a new play during the 2018-19 season.  After seeing the new production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train on Friday evening, 27 October, I’m looking forward to seeing it again—and catching Guirgis’s première next year. 

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train had its world première at the East 13th Street/CSC Theatre in New York City’s East Village from 29 November to 31 December 2000, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman for the LAByrinth Theater Company.  The production starred Ron Cephas Jones as Lucius Jenkins and John Ortiz, LAByrinth’s co-artistic director (with Hoffman), as Angel Cruz.  The play was later presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2001 where it won the First Award, as well as at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2002, garnering a nomination for the Olivier Award for Best New Play for 2003.  Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train was produced by the Eclipse Theatre Company of Chicago in 2016 and in Melbourne, Australia, in 2003 at the Red Stitch Theatre.  Other revivals have been staged around the U.S. and abroad.  The current STC mounting, the first revival in New York City since its début here, began previews under the direction of Mark Brokaw in the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Irene Diamond Stage, the company’s main proscenium house, on 14 October 2017 and opened on 23 October; it’s scheduled to close on 26 November (after a two-week extension from 12 November).

Despite being a fixture in New York and U.S. theater—Guirgis is also a working stage, film, and TV actor, a director, and a screenwriter—there’s remarkably little about his background in public record that I’ve found.  Stephen Adly Guirgis was born in 1964 in New York City, the son of an Egyptian father and an Irish-American mother, and raised on the Upper West Side.  He attended Catholic school in nearby Harlem and went to the State University of New York at Albany, graduating in 1990.  It took Guirgis 7½ years to complete his BA because, as he acknowledged, he was “just lost,” switching majors from undeclared to political science to English.  Then he found his focus when his sister gave him tickets to Lanford Wilson’s 1987 drama Burn This starring John Malkolvich.   That production “changed my fucking life,” Guirgis declares.  “The play just knocked me out.  I went back and changed my major to theater.”  As a theater student at SUNY-Albany, Guirgis also met a new friend: classmate John Ortiz who would be a founding member and co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company.

Guirgis began his theater career as an actor—he considers himself “an actor who writes,” according to theater journalist Leslie (Hoban) Blake—and in 1994, he was asked to join LAByrinth.  The next year, Ortiz asked him to write a play, which turned out to be his first produced work, Race, Religion and Politics.  At LABryrinth, the tyro playwright also met Philip Seymour Hoffman, who became Guirgis’s friend and frequent director in his early years.  The writer felt that LABryrinth became his family and Hoffman his brother, as he wrote in the dedication to the published text of three of his plays.  (Hoffman died from a drug overdose at 46 in 2014.)  LABryrinth, founded in 1992, has produced eight of Guirgis’s 10 scripts (to date), five of them directed by Hoffman.  His screenwriting credits have included TV shows such as NYPD Blue and The Sopranos.

Guirgis’s plays depict a life on society’s margins, characters the New Yorker’s Hilton Als observes are “black, Jewish, and Latino voices that meet and crash and land on the predatory streets” of New York City.  His plays, including Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, are tragic, but include a great deal of tremendous humor.  He employs language as a kind of street poetry, salted with obscenities, but his characters use it to express often complex and profound ideas they wrestle with throughout the play.  The character’s themselves at first glance seem like stereotypes, even clichés, but they soon show themselves to be unique and fully-rounded individuals who often surprise the viewer.  If there’s a detriment to this dramaturgy, it’s that many of Guirgis’s characters, both the educated and the un-, begin to sound alike, as if they are all avatars of one another.

This isn’t to say that Guirgis’s plays offer a clear-cut resolution either to the plays’ situations or the characters’ issues; they are often open-ended and leave many questions raised but unanswered.  Some critics have found this a drawback in Guirgis’s playwriting, while others see his not supplying ready answers as an asset.  By one measure, too, his plays cover too many metaphysical and intractable problems to resolve easily.  This can be frustrating to a spectator, even unsatisfying—but it leaves the theatergoer thinking, which may well have been the dramatist’s intent all along. 

This 2¼-hour, two act play focuses on two temporary inmates of New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal) and Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi), and the two men and one woman who are in their orbit in the city’s criminal justice system.  (Curiously, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train was originally set in the The Tombs, formally called the Manhattan Detention Complex, at the southern end of the island, known at the time as the Bernard B. Kerik Complex.)  It’s around 2000 (because Lucius mentions wanting to be interviewed by TV journalist Connie Chung, who’s been off network news since then and off the air for over 10 years now).  Angel, a 30-year-old Nuyorican, is waiting to be tried on a charge of attempted murder for shooting Reverend Kim, the leader of a Moonie-like cult, in the ass.  Angel charged that Reverend Kim had “stolen” his childhood friend Joey and, stymied by a system rigged by the reverend’s influential church, the assault “was something I could do, ah-right?!”—the only thing.  (Guirgis says that he wrote the play based on his own attempt to rescue a friend from Moon’s Unification Church.)

After an opening scene in which the irreligious Angel tries unsuccessfully to say the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name” is how it comes out), accompanied by obscene catcalls from inmates and guards, his public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Stephanie DiMaggio), meets with her client and starts off confusing him with another defendant.  He demands a “real” lawyer and Mary Jane tries to mollify him by demonstrating how well she knows his case—but Angel won’t have any of it.  A volatile and passionate man, Angel blurts out in his anger that he did, indeed, shoot Reverend Kim—though he denies he intended to do any more than “bust a cap in his lyin’, bullshittin’ ass.”  Whatever his intent, Mary Jane explains that she can’t represent him now because he confessed to her.  Having admitted that he shot Reverend Kim, she can no longer put him on the witness stand because if she does she “would be suborning perjury” and “if you’re lying up there, we can’t know about it.”  Now, Mary Jane observes, Angel will get that new lawyer he wants.

(This little dramaturgical gambit of Guirgis’s disturbed me—not the suborning perjury, which is legit, but the lawyer’s dropping a client because he “confessed” to her.  I didn’t buy it: if it were accurate, it seems like something that would happen fairly often and an awful lot of lawyers would be walking away from an awful lot of defendants.  I have a hard time believing this would really happen outside fiction.  So I asked a criminal defense lawyer I know—who does a lot of court-appointed cases, as a matter of fact—and he replied that I’m “correct that the attorney normally would not just walk away after such an admission.”  It’s not terribly consequential to the play since Mary Jane ultimately doesn’t drop Angel as a client—and we’ll see the consequences of that.)

Mary Jane sympathizes with Angel’s earnestness too much and ends up defending him anyway.  She begins by examining his motivation for shooting Reverend Kim.  When the reverend dies of a heart attack as a result of the operation to  remove the bullet, the charges against Angel are upgraded to felony murder.  As a result, he’s transferred to the Protective Custody wing of the jail and during his one hour of exercise in an outdoor cage, he meets Lucius in the next cage.  Well, not “meets,” exactly: the two inmates are separated by a uncrossable chasm of a few feet as each man is caged up within a box of metal mesh.  Lucius, an African American around 42, is a serial killer nicknamed “Black Plague,” awaiting extradition to Florida to face a capital trial for five murders, but he has delusions that he’s found Jesus even though he remains unrepentant.  Also in the PC exercise yard are two prison guards, Charlie D’Amico (Erick Betancourt) and Valdez (Ricardo Chavira), who have diametrically different approaches to implementing the laws they’re charged with enforcing; Charlie, in his 30’s, is affable, good-hearted—the uber good cop who’s become Lucius’s sidekick, and Valdez, older, maybe 40’s, has a vicious wit, a nasty mouth, and no sympathy for the cons. 

(The upgrade of Angel’s charge raised another question I posed to my attorney friend.  Obviously, the death of the victim of an assault ups the crime from attempted murder; that’s not in doubt.  I’d have thought he’d simply be charged with some kind of straight murder, however, not felony murder.  The death didn’t occur during the commission of some other crime—such as robbery, rape, arson, or burglary—but as a direct result of having been intentionally shot by the defendant.  My legal informant concurred: “I see no basis for felony murder on the facts as presented,” he wrote me.  I also checked on line and found that, as I surmised, assault isn’t construed as an underlying crime for a felony murder charge since murder usually involves an assault.  Again, though, this misunderstanding is of little consequence except insofar as it pulled me out of the play—any public defender, DA, or judge would know better—because the only important circumstance is that Angel is now charged with murder.)

The rest of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a confrontation, sometimes humorous, sometimes harrowing, mostly profane, between Lucius, charismatic and with a positivism that’s nearly maniacal, and Angel, hot-headed, emotional, stubborn, and conflicted (he’s dubbed “Droopy Dog,” much to his displeasure), as the three others circle around the periphery of their nonce universe.  It’s no coincidence that “Lucius” sounds a lot like “Lucifer,” so Guirgis is presenting us a conflict between Devil and Angel (who, to make this paring hold up, doesn’t use the Spanish pronunciation of his name).  Lucius speaks in the language of Christianity and redemption even though he’s committed eight gruesome murders (five in Florida and three more in New York State for which he’s already been convicted) and yet declares himself saved.  William Shakespeare observes that “the devil hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape.”  And Angel, caught between his desire to escape his punishment and his impulse to take responsibility for what he’s done, vacillates between accepting Lucius’s proffer of deliverance and rejecting his pretense of false salvation.  (Guirgis, a lapsed Catholic, has thrown a “Mary” into the mix as an arrogant and prideful would-be savior who stoops to deceit to win Angel’s case—which he, himself, scuttles resulting in her disbarment.) 

I found Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train fascinating—not great, which I’ll try to get to in a moment—though Diana, my usual theater companion, dismissed it as “same old same old” (which I reject).  She contended that Guirgis’s language was ordinary, that she’d heard it everywhere many times, and when I said I found it startling and even poetic (it is vulgar, but the characters are mostly jailbirds and guards), she sort of harrumphed.  This exchange occurred at intermission, so I said I wasn’t prepared to dismiss the play yet, that I found it interesting so far.  The characters intrigued me; though they appeared at first to be stereotypes, they seemed to promise surprises and quirks that hooked me. 

Now, I have to admit that in the end, Guirgis didn’t live up to the promise he seemed to have made.  The characters and the action didn’t really go anywhere in the end; the play’s a series of mostly short scenes that are all airy, philosophical discussion—albeit in earthy language—that don’t resolve anything as far as the drama goes.  The scenes are also often separated by direct-address monologues by many of the characters, a tactic I find anti-theatrical—people standing in a spotlight, talking to me.  (This reminded me a little of Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Confessions” in In the Blood.  See my report posted on 12 October and Kirk Woodward’s article “The Red Letter Plays, Continued,” 1 November.)  Still, I’m not ready to write Guirgis off, and I see enough of interest in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train to want to see where he goes with it.  Even with flaws in the overall dramaturgy, there are individual aspects of the play that are stunning.  (Guirgis’s third play as a Residency One writer will be a new work.)

Still, Guirgis not only has an ear for common speech, but like August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, and Anton Chekhov, he lets his characters speak more lyrically and poetically than real people ever can while still making it sound like street speech.  (This despite the vulgarities, which are just part of the milieu.)  The characters in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train talk philosophy without making it sound out of their range.  (The dialect coach for STC’s revival is Deborah Hecht, whom I assume has much to do with the success of this on stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center.)  He’s also created characters, all five of whom are seriously flawed.  Devil and Angel may be Guirgis’s template here, but not necessarily Good and Evil, for none of the five clearly represents either position.  For all his righteous anger and sense of justice, Angel is rash, out-of-control, and oblivious to the consequences of his choices, intended or not.  Lucius’s epistemology is insidious and self-deluding.  With Mary Jane, Charlie, and Valdez, the picture of the justice system the playwright has drawn demonstrates that the people on both sides are damaged.

Mark Brokaw has directed the STC company with high energy.  Not just Carvajal’s Angel and Gathegi’s Lucius work at full tilt, but so does Chavira’s Valdez and, to a slightly lesser degree, DiMaggio’s Mary Jane; only Betancourt’s Charlie performs on a slightly calmer plane—but his emotional investment is still pretty intense.  Gathegi does much of his scene work in a state of vigorous physical activity which is almost exhausting merely to watch, but he maintains his sense of character throughout.  (Andrea Haring is credited as vocal coach for the production, and I imagine she has something to do with this work.  There’s no credit for Gathegi’s physical performance, but whoever is responsible should take a bow.)  Brokaw has also staged the monologues most of the characters deliver to the audience so that they seem less interruptive than they might have in other hands—though they still halt the play so Guirgis can supply some background or reveal a character’s thoughts.  There ought to be a better, less writerly way to manage this (if, indeed, it’s even necessary)—but that’s not the director’s problem. 

Riccardo Hernandez’s minimalistic set, which consists of two metal cages that resemble nothing more than oversized kennels, is as grim and characterless as you might imagine a city jail would be.  (I haven’t had a great deal of experience with jails; my one encounter was in West Berlin when I was in the army and had to speak with someone who was incarcerated.  He was in a cell, not an exercise cage, but the image is mighty similar.)  Scott Zielinski’s lighting enhanced the bleakness of the surroundings—blazingly bright when the inmates are in the outdoor cages, exposed to the sunlight; dim and shadowy when they’re inside as when Angel meets with his lawyer. 

Before I get to the acting, I should make note of some difficulties through which the company went late in the rehearsal period for Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.  On 28 September, Playbill reported that the Signature Theatre Company delayed the start of previews, scheduled for 3 October, because of the withdrawal of actor Reg E. Cathey from the cast for “personal conflicts” (which Playbill indicated were unspecified “medical issues”).  The performances were to start on 5 October with Edi Gathegi taking the role of Lucius.  Then on 12 October, the theater magazine reported that Victor Rasuk, the actor playing Angel, had left the production for “personal reasons”; the role would be assumed by Sean Carvajal.  STC canceled performances from 7 through 14 October to rehearse Carvajal, but the opening date of 23 October was maintained.

Given the tribulations of the cast, and Gathegi and Carvajal in particular, they did a remarkable job just a fortnight after coming together.  I’ve already mentioned Gathegi’s physical exertions and the vocal work he does at the same time, but what makes this a performance and not just an exhibition of aerobics-cum-speech-making is that both Gathegi’s physicalizations and vocalizations are extensions of the emotional and psychological state of his Lucius.  As mercurial as Gathegi’s serial killer is, he makes it all visible and audible in his performance.  Another of Gathegi’s assets in the role is that I was never sure if his Lucius is on the level or shining us all on, especially Angel.  He’s so obviously pushing Valdez’s buttons and he shamelessly manipulates Charlie to do his bidding—clues that nothing he says or does is should be taken at face value—but is he putting one over on Angel, too?  Gathegi never provides an answer.  As Charlie says after viewing Lucius’s execution in Florida, “Ask me about Lucius Jenkins, . . . there ain’t a hell of a lot I know.”  Gathegi’s cool and his ability not to let us see a glimmer of truth makes his Lucius a truly terrifying man.  (I can’t entirely shake the character Gathegi played on The Blacklist on NBC in 2015 and ’16.  Being similarly inscrutable to Lucius, Gathegi’s character was one of the nastiest and most detestable killers ever to have a role on a TV series; he absolutely needed to die.) 

He’s matched beat for beat by Carvajal (who had even less time to prepare).  A small man, Carvajal seems lost in a prison jumpsuit that’s too big for him—but his stage presence and his energy are anything but hidden or small.  This dichotomy makes him something of a conundrum right from the start.  (This effect was either a brilliant coup by costume designer Dede Ayite, or a fortuitous accident of being forced to use the costume built for Carvajal’s predecessor.)  There are problems with Angel’s credibility—it’s hard to believe his quicksilver reversals, especially his final one that prompts him to confess in court to his act of revenge.  That’s no fault of Carvajal (or Brokaw); it’s Guirgis’s tyro playwriting.  (Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train was only the writer’s third produced work.)  However hard to get hold of Angel’s character is, Carvajal so fully commits to it, inexplicable changes and all, that I accepted it wholeheartedly.  There are people like that sometimes: you can’t figure out why they do what they do, but you completely believe they’re sincere about it.  That was Carvajal’s Angel.  As much as Gathegi keeps everyone, including the audience, out of Lucius’s inner life, Carvajal draws us in to Angel’s.

I’ve also already remarked that the figures on the outside of the Rikers cages are nearly as scarred as the prisoners, and all three actors, Stephanie DiMaggio, Erick Betancourt, and Ricardo Chavira, let us see this.  They show us the masks Mary Jane, Charlie, and Valdez present to the world in their scenes with Angel and Lucius, and DiMaggio and Betancourt show us the damaged and pained Mary Jane and Charlie in the monologues.  (Angel and Valdez are the only characters in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train who don’t address the audience directly.)  I’d have preferred to see those self-revealing moments integrated into the dialogue scenes, but, again, that’s not the fault of the actors.  If their roles are a little two-dimensional, DiMaggio, Betancourt, and Chavira carry them off convincingly.

Based on 24 published and posted reviews, Show-Score gave Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train an average rating of 83.  The site’s top score was one 95 for Theatre Is Easy, followed by a 93 on Front Row Center; the lowest score was Time Out New York’s 60.  The breakdown on Show-Score was 95% positive, 4% mixed, and no negative notices at all.  My round-up will consist of 14 reviews.

The New York Times was the only daily newspaper to cover the revival of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at STC.  In his review, Jesse Green labeled the play “an obscenity oratorio in which vicious, muscular dialogue, appropriate to its setting, turns into gorgeous music.”  Green elucidated:

If it reached no further, the breakneck drama . . . would be a worthy enough stunt, a jukebox of Mamet-scaled vulgarity.  But when performed, as it is here, by a cast that can recreate its rapture as well as its moral gravity, it achieves the doubleness of great art, burrowing deeper the higher it flies.

(Believe it not, this notice scored only a middling 85 on Show-Score’s scale.)  The opening moment of Angel struggling with the distant memory of the Lord’s Prayer, the Times reviewer pointed out, “is Mr. Guirgis’s tip-off that what may look like a genre play—a legal procedural—is going to consider God’s justice as well as man’s.”  Positing that “we have trouble deciding how to invest our emotions” between “the psychopath [who] is an acute thinker” and the “tantrum-prone man-child,” Green asserted, “That is exactly where Mr. Guirgis . . . wants us: in a confused crouch that renders us vulnerable to deeper questioning.”  The Timesman went on to ask: “So where is God—where is good—in the criminal justice system?” adding, “The questions don’t so much hover over ‘Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train’ as yank at it with gale force.”  Green, like me, found that the monologues “pull . . . back from the action,” but otherwise deemed Brokaw’s “staging . . . is otherwise evenhanded and clean, as if not wanting to leave any fingerprints,” instead “rightly” focusing “on shaping the cast into a superlative ensemble.”  The review-writer concluded that the play’s “arguments are eternal . . . .  But they are also particular to our time and place, perhaps even more so now that the United States is the world’s largest jailer than they were in 2000.”  His final point was: “In 2017 ‘Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train’ seems to ask whether justice, and even God, is possible in an unjust society.  No wonder it’s so profane.”

Helen Shaw of Time Out New York reported in Show-Score’s lowest-rated review (60) that at the performance she saw, “the audience applauded midscene four times.  Four times!  That’s unusual at a nonmusical; contemporary realism doesn’t go for showstoppers.”  Calling Guirgis “an unapologetic maximalist,” Shaw said he “writes as though he were composing opera: Stretches of talk flower into huge, profane, splenetic prose arias”:

These near-monologues are often gorgeous, but they can also be weirdly self-negating; in ‘A’ Train, they don’t even always make sense.  Still, they’re full of rhetorical fireworks.  Dazzled, we ooh and aah.

The TONY reviewer called the play “a fugue on themes of justice, incarceration and faith,” which, in Brokaw’s staging, “moves a bit uneasily.”  She perceived “a certain stasis in the play,” asserting that the author

frequently seems content to have people speak for the sole purpose of hearing them hold forth; we could almost be at an actors’ showcase, with the performers taking turns.  There’s enough bluster and noise between Angel and Lucius—enough tough-guy posturing and King James cadences—that we assume a real conversation is taking place.  But even as the speeches build in volume and intensity, they seem less and less connected to each other, buried in an avalanche of passionate talk.   

In the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck stated in his “Bottom Line”: “Superb performances enliven this scorching drama.”  Reporting that Guirgis’s play “is now receiving a superbly acted revival at” STC, in a “riveting production staged by Mark Brokaw,” Scheck wrote that “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train showcases a writer beginning to flex his creative muscles” by “[i]nfusing its familiar criminal justice system tropes with incisive characterizations and riveting dialogue.”  The play, however, “reveals a young playwright’s awkwardness with its overwritten passages and reliance on expository monologues,” the HR reviewer felt.  “But it also displays incendiary passion and insight into its troubled characters.”  Carvajal and Gathegi both “deliver superb performances,” Scheck reported, though the rest of the company “are a bit hamstrung by their characters’ stereotypical aspects but are solid nonetheless.”  In his final analysis, the review-writer warned: “With its explosively profane dialogue and disturbing subject matter, the play is not for the faint-hearted.  But for everyone else it remains a vital, pulsating drama by an ascending playwright whose early promise has been richly fulfilled.”

Marilyn Stasio of Variety characterized Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train as an “intense prison drama” with “a painfully sensitive performance by Sean Carvajal” and “a drop-dead-cold performance from Edi Gathegi.”  Stasio described the revival by asserting that the director “has spring-wound this production so that taking too long a breath means missing something.  Voices are so well orchestrated they’re as complementary as the colors of a painting.” 

In cyberspace, Ran Xia wrote in his “Bottom Line” on Theatre Is Easy that Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a “furiously funny and gut-wrenching masterpiece.”  Labeling the production as “a breathtaking two-hour feat of humanity at its most relentless sincerity” in Show-Score’s top-rated notice (95), Xia described Guirgis as “one of those writers who possesses the rare and astonishing magic of not only transporting us into a tale far more complex than any one single theme, but in doing so by means of characters who engage us within seconds.”  The Theasy reviewer reported that despite the play’s “grim subject matter, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is ferociously funny” as director Brokaw “stays true to the story and lets each character speak candidly to the audience.”  With “no superfluous stylistic choices, nor any theatrical ‘accessories’ to distract us from Guirgis’ text,” Xia observed, “The result is an earnest and triumphant production without a single dull moment.” 

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart affirmed that Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train “raises difficult questions about the intersection of race and class when it comes to justice.”  Brokaw’s “tightly staged production” featuring “[a]cross-the-board stellar performances” offers “few answers or moments of relief,” Stewart found, and “hurls these quandaries at us with the velocity of an express train making the run between 125th Street and Columbus Circle.”  (For those who don’t know, that’s the ‘A’ train of the New York subway and is, I believe, the longest non-stop run in the system.)  The TM reviewer singled out Carvajal, who “takes an already noble character and lifts him higher with a stirring and unforgettable performance.”  Stewart concluded, “A thousand debates blossom from Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, a disquieting miniature of America in just five characters.”

Michael Dale characterized Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train as a “superb drama of public morality and personal convictions” on Broadway World.  Presented in “a thoroughly compelling new production” by Brokaw, “with an excellent company,” the STC revival “graces the playwright's emotionally thick and thought-provoking piece.”  On the Huffington Post, Steven Suskin proclaimed that “Guirgis is a tantalizing street poet” who “writes street plays for street characters.”  Suskin continued, “Time and again, in play after play, Guirgis surprises us with street-savvy but elegant prose, smart, lacerating and viciously funny.”  In Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, confirmed the HP review-writer, “We spend a significant part of the evening trying to keep up with the dazzling images that Guirgis sprouts from the mouths of babes.”

“I’d advise you to swipe your MetroCard and rumble over to [Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train’s] gripping revival at the Signature Theatre,” advised Samuel L. Leiter on his blog, Theatre’s Leiter Side.  Calling the play “a powerful drama, laced with biting humor,” Leiter asserted it “embraces deeply thoughtful themes of masculinity, faith, guilt, remorse, and responsibility.”  As I have, Leiter found fault with the play’s non-dramatic monologues, a literary but not theatrical device, but went on to declare that “Guirgis’s writing, matched by exceptional acting, is so commanding, I can only hope audiences will be hopping the A train with (or without) Jesus to embrace it.”

On Theatre Reviews Limited, David Roberts affirmed that the play “carefully strips away the façade of ‘right and wrong,’ ‘innocence and guilt,’ and ‘good and bad’ to expose the horror of ‘discarding’ human being—a discarding that is ‘irreparable’ and will ‘last forever.’”  He added, “The play also resounds with the horrific wonder of the cycle of redemption.”  Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, said the TRL blogger, “raises rich and enduring questions regarding justice and morality; moral ambiguity; and guilt and innocence”; Guirgis’s “carefully developed tropes . . . are rich imagery and figurative language.”  Theater Pizzazz’s Sandi Durell warned potential theatergoers that Guirgis “writes with guts and blood and not for the faint of heart” and advised any who are “a little uncertain about hearing the on-going profanity of the imprisoned at Rikers Island, you might reconsider as well.”  Durell characterized Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train as “awash with minor and major monologues like pop ups that arise in empty spaces with [its] own humor and one-liners and a symphony of themes that encompass social justice, imprisonment, religious belief as the inmates and the guards battle their own demons.”  In the end, the TP review-writer reported, “The play is powerful, the actors riveting as Mark Brokaw drives the production with insightfulness aided by the dramatic lighting of Scott Zielinski.”

Bill Crouch asked on Stage Buddy, “What if everything you believe is wrong?  (I once asked this of very religious actress friend of mine.)  What if there is no God?  What if Jesus wasn’t the Son of God?”  Crouch continued: “Her answer haunts me to this day.  She looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Then I have nothing.  Nothing at all.’”  This connected to his response to STC’s revival:

The brilliance of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train . . . stunned me for the exact same reason her rebuke did.  It told me the unflinching truth.  The genius at work here is that Guirgis’ characters have nothing (and everything) to lose, and so, they argue brilliantly.  They argue to the death.

Performed by a “solid cast,” our stage buddy observed, “Though it can be a bit of a shouting match at times, in what feels like a somewhat cavernous space, there’s modulation here, too.”  With praise for the design team and the “precise and smooth direction,” Crouch recommended, “Get a ticket, hop a train, see this remarkable production at Signature Theatre Center.”

CurtainUp’s Les Gutman, who reviewed the play in its original run, had great praise for Guirgis’s work in general and for Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train in particular.  After complimenting especially Carvajal and Gathegi, Gutman contended that “it’s the play that’s compelling, and the fine actors are wonderful stewards of Guirgis’s words.”  He advised that “anyone who wants to understand why Guirgis earned all of the honors he has received should pay it a visit.”  The CU reviewer found that the design elements “are unforgiving in a way that perfectly conveys why none of us want to go to prison” and that Brokaw “directed with a careful but light hand.”  Gutman concluded that “Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is not a hard play to watch, because its intensity is lightened with lots of humor and its nuanced themes keep one too engaged to leave time for much outside the play.” 

On New York Theater Guide, Tulis McCall exclaimed that Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, a “nearly operatic” play, “is running in full glorious throttle at Signature Theatre.”  The playwright’s “writing here is spare and direct” with “the urgency of life and death.”  He “guides us through the switchback trails he has laid out with a steady hand,” asserted McCall.  Though she “questioned a few moments,” the NYTG review-writer felt, “The performances are spot on in every way.  No loose ends.  Just clarity, precision and engagement.”  Brokaw’s “direction mirrors the writing in its simplicity and ease.”  As her last word, McCall affirmed, “This is one of those productions that makes you remember why you love the theatre - because it is transformative.”

01 November 2017

The Red Letter Plays, Continued

by Kirk Woodward

[As Kirk says below, he and I saw the two Suzan-Lori Parks plays In the Blood and Fucking A in production at the Signature Theatre Company on, respectively, 19 September and 4 October.  Kirk had read almost all of Parks’s plays, but he confided that he’d never seen one on stage.  Since my usual theater partner had gone off Parks after last season’s STC productions of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and Venus (reported on Rick On Theater on 1 December 2016 and 7 June 2017), I invited Kirk to join me for the two final productions in the playwright’s Residency One tenure at Signature.  I’d never seen these plays before—they premièred in 1999 and 2000—but I felt they’d make a good introduction for Kirk to the dramatist’s work in production, given especially Signature’s customarily excellent productions and the writer’s participation in the presentations.  I think I can safely say, I judged rightly—and I think Kirk will agree.

[As he notes, Kirk’s written on Parks for ROT a couple of time before (the dates and titles of Kirk’s posts are noted below), based then on his close readings of the scripts.  Now, as a sort of companion/supplement to my usual performance reports, he’s contributed  an evaluation of the plays as he sees them fitting into Parks’s body of work.  (My recommendation, especially if you haven’t seen the STC productions, is to read my reports, referenced below, and then read “The Red Letter Plays, Continued.”)  He brings his habitually careful and perspicacious analytical skills to his discussion of the Red Letter Plays, based now on both his familiarity with the texts and the staging at the Signature Theatre Company.  He unquestionably makes several excellent, and important, points about both the plays and Parks’s dramaturgy.  ~Rick]

Rick has recently written in this blog about the two plays by Suzan-Lori Parks (b. 1963), In the Blood and F**king A, collectively known as the Red Letter Plays. The playwright writes the second play’s name as Fucking A, but I am using it as it appears in the program for the productions of the two plays at the Signature Theatre in New York City from August 22 through October 15, 2017. 

I saw both plays with Rick, and I agree with pretty much everything he writes about the plays and their productions. (See the reports on the two productions, posted on 12 and 17 October, respectively.) I want to say a few things looking at them from a slightly different angle: I have written about the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks in this blog before (see “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays Of Suzan-Lori Parks,” 5 October 2009, and “A Playwright of Importance,” 31 January 2011), and have expressed my opinion that she deserves to be considered among the great playwrights in the United States, alongside Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.

A quick look at those four names shows ways in which Parks is not like those outstanding writers. She is a woman. She is also black, her plays are clearly written by a black playwright, and as she writes she uses the resources of theater very differently from her predecessors. (Tennessee Williams, in his work as a whole, is the one she resembles most.)

As to why she deserves a high rank as a playwright, I want to say more about that, using In the Blood and F**king A as exhibits of her qualities and skills, but not as examples of undeniably great plays, because to my mind they are not. However, in a culture where five star ratings, top ten lists, and One Hundred Greatest lists are familiar reviewing tools, it’s easy to forget that a play may be both flawed and still vital and important.

In the Blood (1999) and F**king A (2000) are “middle period” plays for Parks (so far), and may be examined both as works of art in themselves, and as steps in her growth as a playwright.

Because Rick has described the plays, their productions, and their reviewers’ responses with his usual thoroughness, I propose not to go over that territory again, but instead to offer a sort of “pro and con” evaluation of the plays, remembering that in art the same feature of a work can be both a “pro” and a “con.” The “con’s,” when it comes down to it, are not terribly negative.

One frequent fault of beginning playwrights is overwriting. Parks does not in my opinion do this in In the Blood and F**king A in the sense the word is often used – she is not flowery, she doesn’t show off, she doesn’t include passages that have no purpose but to demonstrate how brilliant she is (despite an apparent exception I will mention below). Her plays are thoroughly grounded in their characters and their situations.

Still, to be sure, she is an exuberant playwright, and language is particularly important to her. You can literally see this by opening one of her plays at random to any page – her very typography is different. In particular she goes further than almost any other playwright in “writing” the timing of words and phrases.

And she is capable of letting it rip when appropriate. The set piece of F**king A is the character Butcher’s glorious list of the offences his daughter Lulu (never seen in the play, to our everlasting regret) has committed. It is far too long to quote – it takes up almost two full pages in the published script – but here is a sample of what Lulu has done:

. . . fraternizing with known felons, copulating with said felons with the intent to reproduce, espionage, high treason, mutiny at sea, operating a dump truck without a license, having improper identification, slave trading, horse stealing, murder in the first degree, not knowing what time it is, talking too much, laughing out of turn, murder in the second degree, standing on one leg in a 2-legged zone, jumping the turnstile, jumping the turnstilee, burning down the house, murder in the nth degree. . . .

The actor Raphael Nash Thompson, who played the role in the Signature production, brought the house down with his understated, offhand, take-it-as-it-comes delivery of this tour de force. One would not want it to be a single word shorter.

But in my opinion overwriting occurs in these two plays in a different way: structurally. Parks uses theatrical devices throughout both In the Blood and F**king A to enrich and to startle – a number seem to be borrowed from Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), such as asides and choral speaking. But some seem to me to work against the plays instead of helping them.

For example, the invented language “Talk” in F**king A, translated for the audience in words projected above the actors’ heads, serves little purpose in the play that I can see, except once in a minor way (it does make one conversation unintelligible to other characters), and it takes attention away from the play rather than reconfiguring our attention. 

And two other major devices, to my mind, say too much. In In the Blood, five characters in turn deliver soliloquies, direct addresses to the audience, called “Confessions,” describing their sexual relations, of varied sorts, with the lead character, Hester.

We are familiar, to mention examples from another play, with the soliloquies in the play Hamlet by Shakespeare, who uses the device to share the inner workings of the minds of the characters. But Parks uses the Confessions more to tell the audience about events that have happened, and that is a weaker use of the device – in general, audiences would rather see something happen, than be told that it occurred.

But the Confessions weaken the play further because they make explicit sexual relations that are already inferred by the play. They give “backstory” that is already hinted at, and by spelling the backstories out, it seems to me,  they weaken the play, leaving us with no uncertainty, no mystery. Everything is revealed, and that is not a strong dramatic strategy.

Simply, I think In the Blood would be a more interesting play if the confessions were not in it. The relationships between the characters would be less clear – as they would likely be in life – but filled with more tension, and as audience members we have enough information to make the proper deductions.

I feel the same way about the songs (which Parks wrote, both music and lyrics) in F**king A. They tell us things we already understand the characters are thinking. No matter how good they are, they can’t help seeming redundant.

There are other strategies available for musical numbers in plays. Two of these are to write songs that move the story along, or to write songs that tell us something about the character that we didn’t know before. (Those are approaches frequently used in Broadway musicals.) Another, which Brecht often used, is to write songs with moods that contrast with the scenes they are in. Both are stronger than using songs to illustrate what we already know.

Parks does none of these things. As a result the songs are a matter of A + A = A, and that equation is not dramatically useful.

And I do not feel that the plots of In the Blood and F**king A work as well as they are intended to. In the Blood, a play depicting a poor, unmarried woman with five children, each with a different father who has never acknowledged them, is a story about sexuality run amok, and it is the sexual drives of all the characters that combine to leave Hester condemned at the end of the play, driven to distraction to do the last thing she would want to do.

But what stands out for me in the play is essentially a different story: the desperate efforts of a poor woman to keep her family intact. So for me the plot of In the Blood is insufficiently connected to this core meaning. 

Also, Rick points out in his posting on In the Blood that the device of five actors playing both the adults around Hester and the children they’ve fathered, has an exception in the case of one of the characters (Amiga Gringa), who couldn’t have “fathered” Beauty. (See the report, “The Red Letter Plays: In the Blood” on 12 October, for a fuller explanation of this matter.) This is not a crucial issue, but it does indicate either a too schematic approach to the plot, or else too little concern over its nature.

As for F**king A, its plot strikes me as too blatantly “well made,” with its characters driven by the plot, rather than driving it. Parks I imagine would say rather that the plot is driven by the characters’ needs for money, and this point is clearly made in the play, but it still strikes me as overly schematic.  Spoiler alert – here’s one plot point: Butcher tells Hester how to kill a pig painlessly (he hopes), by slitting its throat. A knife works its way into the story. When her son is about to be tracked down by savage bounty hunters, you know that knife is going to be used.

The plot of F**king A also strikes me as extremely reminiscent of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the 1979 musical written by Hugh Wheeler (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), in its revenge plot, its lead character sent into practically mania at the end of the first act, and its half-sacrificial killing at the final curtain. 

Having said those things, I have run out of negatives about In the Blood and F**king A. After all, these “cons” are relatively few, and are far outweighed by the “pros,” which I will briefly recapitulate, and which make the plays, despite any possible shortcomings, important pieces, well worth seeing, both because of their technique and their content. On the most basic level, neither play, once you’ve seen it, will soon leave your mind. You will have plenty to think about. The characters (I’d say) remain vivid to us. The stories haunt us.

The points of the stories ought to haunt us – the fragility of family life; the ways society threatens marginal families, especially their children; the courage required to live in an urban world, especially as a member of a minority group (but not exclusively, and the Signature production of F**king A used “color blind” casting).

Then, Parks has a strong interest in United States history, and a vivid way of presenting it, as shown in the title of her play Father Comes Home From the Wars (in its various parts). She is always mindful of the African-American experience so central to our national story, and she is mindful of the rest of our history as well. When the central characters in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog (2001) are named Lincoln and Booth, that’s not a gag; that’s a lesson in American history in two names.
And the African-American experience, with our historical legacy of slavery, is crucial to our understanding of ourselves and our world. Freedom, liberty, and personal security, as we see every day, are not issues restricted to one race or to one time.

And, as Rick has shown particularly well in his posting on F**king A, and as I have tried to indicate here too, Parks is brilliant in her use of the resources of theater, and equally brilliant in the sweep of her imagination.

That imagination reaches awe-inspiring heights in her 365 Plays/365 Days (2006), the results of her successful effort to write a play a day, which sometimes produces scenes like the following, the concluding stage direction from “August 20”:

The Man takes a bite from the cabbage.
The Woman continues to build the house of cards.
It gets quite grand. They lacquer it and live in it.
It survives the rains and the mudslides. It makes the cover
of House Beautiful. Their children sell it for a pretty penny.
In short, life goes on, and it goes on pretty well
when you compare the existence of the average American Joe
to the existence of the Average Joe in a less-fortunate country.
Still in all, the Woman’s worries, while mostly forgotten,
were very well-founded.

Although I haven’t seen Plays/Days professionally produced, I have seen acting classes use such scenes with remarkable results.

Parks continues to be a particularly active playwright, and her presence in our theater gives me great hope for its future.

[It’s no longer practical to list all of Kirk’s past contributions to Rick On Theater over that past 8½ years.  They’re far too numerous now—not least because the blog was in large part Kirk’s idea to start with.  I’ll just say that, in addition to his pieces on Suzan-Lori Parks (referenced above), my friend has also written for ROT on many various topics, including several kinds of music (jazz and rock ’n’ roll), the Beatles, stage directing, reviewing (on which he’s published a book, The Art of Writing Reviews), playwriting, and a whole host of other topics, including some very personal ones, on which I could never write.  If any readers find “The Red Letter Plays, Continued” interesting, I recommend using the blog’s search engine (in the upper left-hand corner of the site) to find other Woodward articles.  Whatever ones you select, I guarantee you’ll encounter something interesting—and edifying.]