21 November 2017

A Passion For Art: My Parents’ Art Collecting


On Monday, 6 November, an exhibition of the small art collection assembled by my late parents over 40-some-odd years opened at the Stan Kamen Gallery at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.  This was the final act in a more-than-two-year process to make a continuing loan of the collection to the university.  I first contacted the university’s Reeves Collection, the division that oversees the school’s art holdings that are used in the art department and campus display, a short time after my mother, Judith (b. 1923), died in May 2015.  (My father, Eugene, b. 1918, had died in 1996.  I’ve written memoirs of both my parents for Rick On Theater: “Dad,” posted on 20 June 2010, and “Mom,” 1 November 2016.)  After negotiating several administrative and logistical hurdles, Washington and Lee agreed to accept the loan, which will be renewed every several years.  (W&L doesn’t take permanent or perpetual loans.)

I’m extremely pleased that the university agreed to this proposal.  My father was an alumnus of W&L’s class of 1940 and I’m a graduate of the class of 1969.  My father was a very active alumnus, serving on several committees in the years since World War II until his death, and Mother supported him wholeheartedly in all his efforts.  (An alumna of Elmira College in upstate New York, Mom essentially shifted her allegiance from her own alma mater and became a sort of daughter-in-law of Washington and Lee.)  Both my parents were particularly interested in the arts on the W&L campus, perhaps because I was an avid member of the Troubadours, the extracurricular university theater in my day, for my four years in Lexington.  Dad was particularly active in the development program for the Lenfest Center for the Arts, the home to the school’s fine and performing arts programs and activities (and the site of the Kamen Gallery).  He was on the development committee for the center, responsible for raising the money for its construction, and my parents were invited to attend the opening gala when the theater was inaugurated with a dedication ceremony and a production of Evita on Saturday, 25 May 1991.

Both Mother and Dad were very proud to have contributed to the Reeves Collection over the years, most significantly a pair of antique carved wood sculptures of Japanese deities.  When I came back briefly to New York City in June 2015 after my mother’s death in Maryland, I found a note of condolence from the directors of the Reeves Center and I decided to contact them to thank them for their sentiments and to broach the subject of the loan proposal.  My parents had been collecting art since the late 1950s and had gathered about 40 pieces of various forms (oil paintings, watercolors, prints, sculptures, tapestry) and periods.  Several of the pieces are large and together with the number, it was impossible for me to keep the art myself—unless I bought another apartment just for the collection.  (I actually remember reading of a man who did just that.  He lived in one apartment and kept a second one across town in which he stored his works of art.  Periodically, he’d swap out the pieces he displayed in his home with some stored in the other apartment and would thus rotate the art on his residence walls.) 

Two things I knew: I didn’t want to sell off the art—it had meant too much to my parents and, by legacy, to me as well—and I didn’t want to put it in some kind of permanent or long-term storage until I happened to move to larger quarters . . . or died.   A loan to some place that would agree to keep the collection together was my best solution, and my Dad’s and my alma mater was the optimum choice if they could be persuaded to be interested.  Luckily for me, as soon as I broached the idea to the W&L art folks, they expressed great interest in making the deal.  As it turned out, the university was looking for works to fill in gaps in its art holdings, particularly in “20th-century and non-Western art,” as Patricia Hobbs, Curator of University Collections of Art and History, put it to me.  Among the pieces in my parents’ collection are a Fernando Botero (Colombian) oil, an Antoni Tàpies (Spanish) oil, three Sam Gilliam (American contemporary) acrylic pieces of different styles, 2 Leonard Cave (American contemporary) marble sculptures, and a Fritz Scholder (Native American contemporary) bronze.  There are also several non-Western pieces, including pre-Columbian (Latin American terracotta figures), Chinese (19th-century scroll), Thai (18th/19th-century works on linen), and Japanese (18th-century woodblocks).  (There were a number of African pieces, but my mother gave them to me during her lifetime.  My will, however, stipulates that all my art will be bequeathed to Washington and Lee at my death, so the school will get that parcel as well as a few other interesting works in a decade or so.)

W&L doesn’t have an art gallery or museum like some colleges.  The art in its collection is primarily used in the classes of the Department of Art and Art History; selected works are displayed in academic and administrative buildings around the campus and changed periodically.  The rest are kept in storage, available for the art classes and swapped for those on display.  This struck me immediately as an ideal situation because I believe my parents would not only approve, but actually delight in the arrangement.  Hanging the art in buildings where students and faculty come and go daily, rather than corralling it in a special space designated an “art gallery” where people have to go expressly to see it, seems ideal for art that had been part of the home I grew up in and saw every day as I went about the ordinary business of life.  My family didn’t go to a museum to see their art, why would they want anyone else to have to? 

And using the works in classes is a benefit it goes without saying would please my father especially.  I always felt he’d have been an exceptional teacher.  He was a kind of one first as the director of the Amerika Haus in Koblenz, West Germany, his Foreign Service post in the early ’60s, where his job was to inculcate the idea of America and the history of the U.S. to post-war Germans; and later, as a volunteer docent at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington in the ’80s, explaining some of the works of art there to museum-goers.  (Mother, too, was involved in teaching, volunteering in the D.C. public schools’ reading programs and screening applicants for high school exchange programs from Russia for Youth for Understanding.)  I know this proposition would meet with their approval all around.  (The Lenfest Center exhibit, which will remain on view until 30 June, will be the only time at W&L that the whole collection will be shown together while the university retains it.  It’s entitled A Passion for Art, which I’ve borrowed for the title to this article.  It expresses perfectly my folks’ approach to art collecting, as I hope you’ll see.)

The loan arrangements and the Lenfest exhibit are also the culmination of my parents’ nearly 50-year adventure in art collecting.  It started in 1958 or ’59 when my father bought a part ownership in the Gres Gallery in Washington, a respected venue for contemporary one-artist and theme shows.  It was a total impulse buy: Dad came home one day and pretty much exclaimed, “Guess what I bought!”  Of course, we had no idea—my brother and I were all of about 10 and 12 at this point—and when my father told us he’d bought into an art gallery, Mom asked, “What  kind of art gallery?”  “Modern art,” Dad replied, and Mom came back, “But we don’t know anything about modern art!”

That was true, too.  There was certainly more on the walls of my family’s home at this point—they weren’t bare as far as I can recall—but I only specifically remember three pieces that predate the Gres Gallery days.  Two were old-fashioned Romantic oil paintings that I recall had been presents from my mother’s father as house-warming gifts for my folks’ first apartment as a married couple.  One was a picture of four men playing dice, painted according to some notes of my father’s, by German artist Claus Meyer (1856-1919).  (A quick search on the Internet reveals a work called The Dice Game by Meyer, painted in about 1900, that strongly resembles my recollection of the painting my parents owned.)  The other, essentially its mate (though the artists are almost certainly not the same), is a painting by an unknown painter of two small children playing with a cat in what looks like a farmyard.  Both paintings are dark and painted in the style of a late-19th-century oil, framed in elaborate gold-leafed wood frames.  I was never partial to them, but my cousin loved them and my parents gave them to her when she got married in the ’70s. Today they hang in her dining room in Bethesda.  (My grandfather was her great uncle.)

The third piece of art that my parents had when I was a little boy was a mid-20th-century Impressionist painting, Out My Apartment Window (ca. 1948) by Maurice Bizot, a French artist who lived in the late 19th to middle 20th centuries.  This was the first piece of art my parents bought, a good decade before they became immersed in the world of contemporary art through their experience with Gres.  It's certainly not a great piece of art, and Bizot’s almost unknown.  He has almost no Internet footprint; even his life dates are unrecorded.  I know from what my folks told me years later that they bought this painting without any knowledge of art or artists and the desire was just for a piece of decor that they liked.  I don't know where they bought the painting—probably a gallery in Washington, but it could have been New York (where both sets of grandparents lived then)—but I suspect it was the 1940s equivalent of art sold at those motel exhibits that are advertised on TV late at night.  Nonetheless, it had sentimental value to my parents and it's rather a good example, technically at least, of the techniques and criteria of an Impressionist painting, even though it was painted decades after the true Impressionist era.  I always had a fondness for it, too, mostly for its view out an apartment window.  I always liked to imagine I was looking down on a Paris street, perhaps in Montmartre.

That was the extent of my parents’ involvement with art, modern or otherwise, until Gres Gallery.  My folks got interested in modern art when Dad made that impulse-buy and they threw themselves into the operation of the gallery—though Mother was the principal activist (Dad had a day job, of course—two, actually).  I got into the act, too, going with Mother to the 20th Street gallery near DuPont Circle to help stuff envelopes and such.  For all of us, that engagement was a total-immersion course in contemporary American and Western art and artists.  What I found most exciting was that the vernissages rotated among the six or so households, so when my folks hosted the parties, the décor had to include displaying some of the artist’s (or, sometimes, artists’) work in our home.  I helped in the set dressing, so not only did I get to see “real” art at the gallery, but I got to have this art in my house, at least temporarily.  It was like actually having taken one of those imaginary midnight shopping trips Mom and I later would joke about after seeing a good museum exhibit.  What’s more, I got to meet actual artists.  This whole venture was an art education for all of us and an adventure for me, and it lasted well beyond the demise of Gres Gallery in 1961 or ’62 to the end of my parents’ lives.

Founded around 1957 by an Argentine named Tanya Gres, the gallery was purchased in ’58 or ’59 by a consortium of amateurs put together by Beatrice (Mrs. Hart) Perry who trained as a sculptor.  With Beati as managing partner, Gres held first-in-America exhibits by artists from Europe, South America,  and beyond, such as painter and sculptor Wojciech Fangor of Poland (1922-2015), Colombian painter Fernando Botero (b. 1932), and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929).  Beati Perry (1921-2011) had little interest in showing local art because she didn’t want Gres to become known as a Washington gallery, so several artists like Kenneth Noland (1924-2010) and Morris Louis (1912-62) never showed at the gallery.  Washington, however, had a lively and active art scene.  Not only have the city’s art museums such as the Corcoran Gallery (established in 1874), the Phillips Collection (1921), the National Gallery of Art (1941), and the various Smithsonian facilities (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1829; National Portrait Gallery, 1968; Renwick Gallery, 1972; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1974; along with several specialized repositories) been important venues for displaying and viewing art of many cultures and eras, but Washington also had long had a vibrant retail gallery presence, including Gres; the Jefferson Place Gallery (1957-75), Gres’s principal competition; and the renowned Washington Gallery of Modern Art (1961-68), catering to the many collectors in the metropolitan area and beyond.  Since World War II, the Nation’s Capital has been a true art center, and it even spawned its own art movement, the Washington Color School (of which Noland and Louis were among the adherents), that flourished from the 1950s to the 1960s.  

My parents began exploring this aspect of our hometown once the Gres Gallery bug had bitten them.  Mother already had a couple of friends who were Washington artists.  Minnie Klavans (1915-99), the wife of contractor Elmer Klavans, who specialized in restorations (and did the renovation of the house in Barnaby Woods my family moved to in 1958), was an award-winning painter, sculptor, and jewelry-maker; Lila Oliver Asher (b. 1921), a friend of Mother’s from their childhoods (Lila had been Mom’s camp counselor), is an internationally esteemed printmaker, sculptor, and watercolorist.  Mom and Dad, who owned one of Lila’s prints (I also own one) and four of Minnie’s paintings and prints (plus one small painting the artist gave Mom in lieu of a greeting card—which I now have), added to these acquaintanceships by becoming friendly with other area artists they met once their interest in the work had been piqued. 

Among these new friends were Jacob Kainen (1909-2001), a painter, printmaker, collector, art historian, and curator of the Division of Graphic Arts at the Smithsonian’s U. S. National Museum (later the National Museum of American History); sculptor Leonard Cave (1944-2006), whom my folks met through friends; and Sam Gilliam (b. 1933), a painter who was a later member of the Washington Color School.  Sam’s partner, Annie Gawlak, who’s also his manager, is a gallery-owner in the Nation’s Capital and Mom and Dad frequently visited her various galleries in Georgetown or Logan Circle just to see what she was showing.  They also struck up an acquaintanceship with American sculptor Chaim Gross (1904-91) and visited him several times at his studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts, when my folks had a Cape Cod summer house in Brewster.  Their collection includes three Gilliams, two Grosses, two Caves, and a Kainen.  (One of the Grosses and the Kainen are now in my possession.)

They also got to know David Lloyd Kreeger (1909–1990), an art philanthropist (who’d been a benefactor of the Museum of African Art for which my dad had worked) and recipient of the 1990 National Medal of Arts, who built a mansion for himself and his wife on Washington’s exclusive Foxhall Road, designed in 1963 by architect Philip Johnson and built in 1968, which was intended to become a museum to display his art collection after his death.  My folks were invited to see the museum-home before it was opened to the public (I got to tag along), and the funny thing was—it felt like more like the Kreegers were living in a museum than in a home that would eventually be transformed into a museum.  Kreeger, who in his other life was formerly the president, chairman, and CEO of GEICO, the insurance giant, had the reputation in the D.C. art scene of having bought the worst works of the greatest artists—and I have to say that what we saw at the Kreeger mansion that afternoon bore this rep out.  (The Kreeger Museum opened to the public on 1 June 1994.)

The group ownership of Gres Gallery lasted only three or four years, but the association impelled my parents into an exploration of contemporary art from Europe, the Unites States, and Latin America.  Their artistic interests soon broadened, however.  Dad’s volunteer stint from the late ’60s into the ’70s as Director of Development for the private Museum of African Art, precursor to the present National Museum of African Art on the Mall, generated an enduring interest in the art of sub-Saharan Africa and trips to China, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Japan spawned an attraction to Asian art.  Visits to the American Southwest and to Mexico and Central America resulted in an affinity for Native American and pre-Columbian art, as well. 

Vacations always included visits to the local art museums and they often went on trips that were expressly arranged as art tours organized by the Smithsonian or other art institution.  Frequently, these trips included visits to artists’ studios—and they not uncommonly brought home a new work of art with which they’d fallen in love.  A trip to Mexico City in 1981 yielded Personaje de Perfil ("Head of a Man," 1980), a mixografia/aguafuerte etching by Ruffino Tamayo (1899-1991).  A visit to Los Angeles in 1987 resulted in the purchase of Mother’s favorite piece of art, Stanley Boxer’s (1926-2000) Highfromblare (High From Blare) (ca. 1987), a large mixographia monotype on white linen, and one to Dallas the same year netted Another Mystery Woman (ca. 1987), a bronze sculpture by Native American artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), whose work we later encountered in 2002 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Scholder had lived and taught. 

When my folks took a trip to Yugoslavia in 1981, they went to the government-sponsored artists’ colony in Kovačica (now part of Serbia) and purchased a naïve/folk art oil on canvas entitled Bride and Groom (Bridal Couple) from the artist, Martin Paluska (1913-84).  They had arrived in the little town (population then, about 8,000), and went to the municipal showroom, where samples of all the artists’ work were on display.  They liked Paluska’s painting of the couple in their traditional wedding garb and went to the artist’s home and studio.  Negotiating through the painter’s wife, who spoke some German, my parents explained that they liked the painting they’d seen at the showroom and wanted to buy one like it—but in a different color scheme.  Was that possible?  Paluska assured them it was a perfectly common request and my parents placed the order for the painting to be created and shipped to them in the States.  Three months later, the notification came that the painting was ready as requested and had been shipped. 

Of course, the element that set my parents’ art collecting apart from many other art patrons was that they didn’t buy as an investment, and they didn’t buy work by famous artists—or artists they thought might become famous.  They bought only what they really liked.  As a result, the growing collection represented an expression not only of their taste in art, but of their enthusiasm; it was a reflection of their emotional responses to the painting or sculpture—and to the artist.  Consequently, the collection meant much more to my folks than an assemblage of attractive decorations; the art was a treasured facet of their life together.  One suggestion of this is that Mother stopped buying art after Dad died.  It was something they did together, as a couple; it wasn’t an activity either indulged in individually.  (The one exception was Botero’s Boy with Guitar, 1960.  Mother bought that as a 42nd birthday gift for my father from her, my brother, and me; it was one of the earliest art purchase after we’d become involved with Gres, from which it was purchased at the artist’s second show there, Botero in October 1960, and that situation never arose again.)

(My parents never again bought art for each other—I don’t think this was some kind of pact; it just developed that way—but they did buy art for me and my brother.  The very next purchase, also from Gres, was Intermezzo, 1958, by Norman Carton, 1908-1980, in December 1960, a gift my folks made to me for my 14th birthday.  Unlike Botero, who soon became world-famous, Carton, who was on the faculty of the New School for Social Research—now known simply as The New School—in New York City, never became well known outside art circles.  Nonetheless, I cherish the little, heavily impastoed, multi-colored abstract expressionistic oil as much as any piece of art I own.  Almost 30 years after it was painted, when the oil paint finally began to dry inside the thick blobs, it began to flake and peel away from the canvas and I knew I’d lose the painting if I didn’t do something.  I asked my dad, then working as a docent at the National Portrait Gallery, to find a conservator who might be able too save the Carton and I ended up paying five times the purchase price—but a quarter of its estimated value at the time—to stabilize it.  The expense was more than worthwhile to me.)

Along with Boy with Guitar (also called Boy with Mandolin) and Intermezzo, my parents acquired several pieces from Gres, all within the short period between 1959 and the gallery’s demise in 1961 or ’62.  Among these, the foundation of their small collection, were Pegasus (1951) by Spanish painter Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012); Biblique (1959) by Aleksander Kobzdej (Polish, 1920-72); Ossidiana VI (1959), aluminum gel on canvas by Franco Assetto (Italian, 1911-91); and an untitled pen-and-ink drawing  (ca. 1959) by Rafael Alvarez Ortega (Spanish, b. 1927), part of his line-drawing series “Los Niños del Mar” (“Children of the Sea”).  (The last two are in my possession now.)  One piece which is no longer in the collection, a Yayoi Kusama canvas, an untitled 51"-square, red-and-black oil from her “Infinity Net” paintings, was bought from one of the 1960 shows of her work at Gres; Mom sold it in 1996.

The Kusama canvas was the only piece of art my parents sold from their collection.  They did give the two Romantics to my cousin and over the years, they gave a number of works to me; in the last several years of Mother’s life, she decided to give me pieces of art instead of presents on my birthdays and other holidays, so some things that were originally part of my parents collection are now in my home.  They never, however, sold another work of art other than the Kusama.

The Yayoi Kusama Infinity Net painting, along with Kobzdej’s Biblique, are artifacts in a couple of historically interesting art events at Gres in which my parents participated.  One early exhibit Beati Perry organized at the gallery was Six Japanese Painters in 1960, a display of Japanese artists working in Yōga, or contemporary Western-style painting, rather than Nihonga, traditional Japanese forms—something that was unfamiliar to American collectors at that time.  Six Japanese Painters was so noteworthy (not to mention popular) that it toured the country, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Kobzdej was part of a show that was even more striking, a group of Polish painters, which also included Fangor, who were working in contemporary forms instead of the approved Soviet style of Socialist Realism.  This work wasn’t officially sanctioned in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe and had never been allowed outside the region before, but Perry put together 15 Polish Painters at Gres and it, too, was borrowed in its entirety by MoMA in 1961. The show was still only quasi-officially recognized: the Polish ambassador didn’t come to the opening—I believe he came privately later—but the embassy did send a middle-ranking diplomat as a representative. 

My parents eventually met Kobzdej, but it was hard to do because of the Cold War.  The artists hadn’t been allowed to come to Washington or New York for the exhibits; the art was okay to leave the country, but the artists apparently weren’t.  The Cold War was a truly Kafkaesque time!  I wasn’t there when my folks met the artist (I was probably at school), but I heard the tale.  Kobzdej had been allowed to travel a little in Western Europe by then (the early ’60s), but he was closely monitored and his itineraries were carefully laid out so as to leave little opportunity to socialize with Westerners—or, worse, defect.  Somehow my folks had learned the artist was going to be somewhere in West Germany—I guess they must have been in correspondence—so they planned to go there at the same time and try to see him.   Anyway, they didn’t connect—either Kobzdej’s schedule changed or my parents couldn’t get to see him in person.  (The same thing happened to a friend and me trying to connect with his pen-pal in the Soviet Union.)  But he was going to be in another town later or on another trip, and this time they were able to get together and had a long talk about his work and travels and my folks’ lives in Germany—just chitchat (I imagine they were monitored; it would have been the practice in the Cold War that Kobzdej have a minder).  I do remember that he was delighted that my parents had one of his paintings—I think he remembered the specific one.  (When Mom met Tàpies years later, he didn’t recall the Pegasus we had!)

The subsidiary consequence of the way my parents bought their art was that it came to mean more to me than mere possessions as well.  I’ve already said that the art was more important to me than the furniture or my mother’s jewelry, or the set of crystal, or the sterling flatware.  Those were nice—my parents had wonderful taste and Mother had an eye for home decorating—but I wasn’t ever going to use them, so I gave some of it to family members and sold the rest at auction.  But I couldn’t do that with the art, as I explained.  It’s not even quite that I “grew up with it.”  I didn’t live in my parents’ home from 9th grade on; I came home for holidays when I was at school and visits after I was an adult—but I didn’t live there anymore.  But the art was somehow special—and it wasn’t only because of the way Mom and Dad acquired it.  I love it, too, separate from its association with my folks—probably because I went though that initiation back in the late ’50s along with my parents.  I suspect it made a stronger impression on me, at 12, 13, and 14, than maybe it did on Mom and Dad.  (The experience doesn’t seem to have had the same effect on my brother, two years my junior.)

The collecting, as I said, went on in earnest from 1959 until a few years before my father’s death in 1996.  I moved out of my parents’ home in September 1961 to go away to school, but until college, I returned home regularly.  So the art that was accumulated between 1960 and 1965 might as well have been mine in the sense that I lived with it almost continually as I was growing up.  As I told people at Washington and Lee when I was there for A Passion for Art, some of those works became like old friends.  My relationship with the pieces added later, after I was in the army and then had my own home in New York City, was different—even though some of my favorite pieces of art in the collection are among these.  But those pieces are just that: works of art I like and admire, not special friends I visited when I came to see my parents.  Among these are Sam Gilliam’s Chinese (1990), a formless canvas of many-colored acrylic which is shaped differently every time it’s hung and takes on a completely different character depending on who’s done the installation.  (Gilliam himself hung the piece the first time it was installed in my parents’ Washington, D.C., apartment in 1990.  He rehung it for Mother when she moved several years later to another apartment, and it was different in both apartments: in the first, it bent around the corner of an entranceway from the dining room into the living room; in the second, a lobe reached up the wall onto the ceiling.)  Another favorite is a maroon-and-white op-art tapestry by Victor Vasarely (French/Hungarian, 1906-97).  Both Gilliam and Vasarely are artists my parents liked particularly; they owned three Gilliam works (and, as I recounted, he became a friend) and two Vasarelys, plus a pair of Vasarely “wearable art” cufflinks, Jolie (silver and black enamel, 1988), Mother and I bought for Dad as a gift for his 70th birthday.  (I also own a Gilliam—and I have the Vasarely cufflinks, which Mom gave me after Dad died.  I made a particular point of wearing the jewelry to the 14 November reception at the Kamen Gallery that marked the exhibit’s opening.)

I guess the upshot is that my parents passed on to me an affection for this collection because of the way they brought it together.  I’ve affirmed that my mother and father didn’t buy art because they saw it as an investment; it wasn’t a statement of any kind, either.  It was more than just decorative, pretty things to put around the house or apartment—although it definitely served that purpose as well.  They bought what they truly loved, which is why I found the exhibit title so apt: they undeniably had a passion for art.  But they also developed a love of the process of collecting, going to galleries and museums to see the work of artists, to studios where they met the artists in whom they took an interest, getting to know some along the way.  Art and art-collecting became one of my parents’ greatest pleasures; even though my mother stopped acquiring art after my father’s death, she never stopped enjoying seeing it and being around it.  Mom and Dad went to art museums and galleries almost as far back as I can remember and later took trips, as I’ve noted, expressly to see art and artists.  We always included art museums, especially museums of local art, in our trips in the U.S. and abroad and when Dad died, Mom often saved those kinds of visits for when we visited one another.  She began giving me art as gifts not because it was easier than buying presents, but because she wanted me to have the pieces—and she knew I’d love them, too. 

The collected works had special meaning to Mom because their assembling had been an endeavor she and my father shared.  Each piece reflected something unique.  I have anecdotes about many of the works in the collection—Mom had stories about all of them.  As sentimental as it sounds to articulate it, my parents’ art collection was brought together with love.  More than anything else they left me, the art collection holds the most meaning for me.  In a way, I’m glad I can’t display it in my home.  If I did, no one would see it except me and a few friends and relatives.  On loan to Washington and Lee University, where it can be seen around the campus by students, faculty, and visitors (and W&L is a historic school with a campus designated a National Historic Landmark and renowned as the “most beautiful college campus in America,” so it gets a fair number of visitors), I get to share it with others—even if they don’t actually know why they’re seeing it.  (Pat Hobbs told me before A Passion for Art opened that there was a lot of buzz around the campus and after the reception she confirmed that the attendance was the largest ever in the Kamen Gallery and had included not only faculty and staff, but students and community members as well.  I hope that’s a harbinger of interest to come.)

[I’ve covered art and artists a fair amount on Rick On Theater, including some of the painters and sculptors named above.  Both “Washington Art Matters,” posted on 5 September 2013, and “The Washington School of Color,” 21 September 2014, touched on some of the art history mentioned here as well as several of the artists shown at Gres Gallery and included in my folks’ collection.  Sam Gilliam, who figures in both the general articles, is featured in “Picasso, Bearden, Gilliam, and Gauguin,” 26 June 2011; “Lila Oliver Asher,” 26 September  2014, and “Yayoi Kusama,” 18 May 2017, are profiles of the artists of the titles.  There’s also a report on Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian, a two-part exhibit at the two branches of the National Museum of the American Indian in 2008-09 which I posted on 20 March 2011.]

16 November 2017

Frankie

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.

Rock

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.”