New York celebrity director/actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was checking out Benedict Andrew's fine production of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Belvoir Upstairs. I guess partly because the cast happens to include Marton Csokas who also features in Andrew Upton's upcoming production of Riflemind, which Hoffman is in Sydney to direct for the STC.
It just happens that, right now, another play with which Hoffman has had a close relationship is playing Downstairs: Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train by Stephen Adley Guirgis. It's a terrific play and well done in this production directed by Wayne Blair, who also plays a major role.
It's essentially the story of two men - murderers - locked away in isolation but for one hour a day when they meet in the exercise yard. Lucius Jenkins (Blair) admits to at least eight murders, but since incarceration has found solace in God. A lot of people do when they discover themselves backed into the ultimate corner. Quite quickly you are made aware, however, that this is not a play about redemption in any conventional sense.
Angel Cruz (Ryan Johnson), on the other hand, happened to have shot a dodgy religious cult leader 'in the ass' after effectively stealing away with one of Angel's good mates. The trouble is that if a person dies as a result of such a crime, the United States has evolved a new offence called 'felony murder' which equates to 'first degree'. I only know this from seeing a doco on TV last week about the phenomenon of felony murders: say a guy gets run over crossing the road while you are pointing a gun at him then you may as well have had the pleasure of shooting him at close range through the heart.
I offer these details only to record the amount of lolling in front of the box I have been doing while down with the flu. Thankfully, you don't need to know what a felony murder is to appreciate the fact that Angel's crime is of a much lower order than that of Lucius Jenkins. While Lucius opens the play in trembling prayer, Angel begins the play as a combative smart arse. However, as the drama unfolds over a series of meetings in the exercise yard, Angel's mindset shifts. The two prisoners, banter, brag and debate; and their differing views make an impact on each.
Hovering around this central narrative line are two guards: one nice - D'Amico (Alan Flowers); the other nasty - Valdez (Ashley Lyons), and a frustrated lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Anni Finsterer). All make their mark on this production with fine performances. While the play is well worth seeing in it own right; the ensemble quality of these performances along with the fast paced and nuanced direction put this production into the 'catch it if you can' category.
The Hoffman connection goes back to the play's premiere production in New York in 2000, which he directed. The work was born of a company called LAByrinth which started life in 1992 as a once-a-week get together for enthusiastic if largely under-employed Newyorican theatre artists (Latino Actors Base = LAB). From chat sessions to play readings to workshops to studio productions, the company has grown is both size and stature. The mix-and-match, all-for-one and one-for-all structure remains largely unchanged; but the troupe has in recent years opened its membership to other talented locals including Hoffman (since 1995) and playwright John Patrick Shanley (since 2000). LAByrinth now enjoys close to one hundred members in its collective and continually produces some of the most headline-grabbing theatre in Manhattan.
Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is surprising in its energetic pursuit of ideas, chasing down contradictions within and between matters including civic law, religion, class, forgiveness, conscience, revenge, faith and cynicism. Questions are raised but, refreshingly, without too many answers. What motivates Jenkins new found faith in God is easier to understand than Angel's reversal in the final scenes: not necessarily to towards God but certainly towards accepting responsibility for his actions and submitting himself to whatever the law considers an appropriate punishment.
The original production at Centrestage, a 60-seat venue in downtown Chelsea received sparkling reviews from New York City's most demanding critics, including Ben Brantley at the New York Times and Michael Feingold at the Village Voice. Master technicians of their craft, both noted the plays strengths lie more in its sequence of outstanding dramatic moments than in any all-encompassing thematic overview. These heavy-duty dudes at the top of the Big Apple pile ask a lot of a playwriting debut: that's part of their their job.
For the common folk who pay for their tickets, so engaging is the action as it unfolds, few will have noticed the point these 'heavies' were making regarding the matter of structural finesse. To translate: Brantley and Feingold were saying that the writing is more exciting than it is controlled. They are absolutely correct. Their premise lies in the capacity of Ibsen and Chekhov to encapture both at once (and only in their later work). In the meantime - while we wait for the next Godot - for most of us, unanticipated thrills and spills are greatly preferred to yet another perfectly enunciated lecture on what we ought to do to improve our lives or save the world
In the role of Angel, that original production starred John Ortiz - one of the founding members of LAByrinth.
Hoffman's production toured the UK - taking in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, followed by seasons at London's Donmar Warehouse and the West End. It has become one of the 'mighty mouse' small plays of our time, drawing crowds, rave reviews and swags of awards for dozens of productions initially across the United States and now further abroad. Melbourne's progressive Red Stitch Company premiered the play in Australia a few years back.
Those who seek perfection may find the roles of Mary Jane Hanrahan and D'Amico a little underwritten - but both Finsterer and Flowers bring finesse and presence to these roles. Wayne Blair creates an excellent Lucius, especially given the time he would have had to spend, as director, studying the production's development from off-stage. Taking into account the vast cultural gap between the average yobbo Australian petty crim and a constituent of the deprived-end of New York's Latino community, a big tick goes to Ryan Johnson's Angel Cruz. Despite the above-mentoned challenges, actor and character become one.
Belvoir's B Sharp Downstairs is currently in the midst of a series of excellent productions for price: including the Pulitzer prize-winning Anna In the Tropics, Kate Mulvaney's latest play; The Seed, with an awesome performance from Danny Adcock; and again dazzling work from Ralph Cotteril and Annie Byron in irish writer, Enda Walsh's The Small Things. One could make a speech here about the shift in role and responsibility for the B Sharp program. Once a springboard for beginners, it is now a hot spot for fine non-mainstream work often cast with some of the finest and most experienced actors in this city. It is a touch insulting for the likes of Adcock, Cotteril and Byron (among others) to pick up a bit of small change at the end of each night given their contributions to both Australian theatre generally and, in these particular productions, the Belvoir cause. This issue, I gather, has been raised both with the Belvoir Board and whatever we now call Actors Equity.
Meanwhile, can I suggest taking advantage of the bargain-basement prices for some of the best theatre in Sydney. If your not already onto this little hotspot of high quality 'little' theatre, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is an excellent production with which to start. If you're really really poor, one performance a week is seriously cheap.
murri fulla films in association with B Sharp presents
JESUS HOPPED THE ‘A’ TRAIN
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Venue: Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Preview: Thursday September 13
Opening Night: Friday September 14
Dates: Friday September 14 – Sunday October 7
Plays: Tues 7pm, Wed-Sat 8.15pm, Sun 5.15pm
Tickets: $29/$23 (Preview $20, Cheap Tues Pay-what-you-can min $10)
Bookings: 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au