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Faith in the Penal System

After several unnecessary scenes, Cruz finds himself next to Lucius Jenkins (Theodore M. Snead), a serial killer trying to evade extradition to Florida and certain execution, and the dramatic engine finally gets revving.

Under Tovah Nu¤ez's seamless direction, Jenkins pushes the buttons of a sadistic guard (Jeffrey A. Schmidt) as he simultaneously charms and befriends Cruz in an outdoor recreation area. In a nice piece of actor's craftsmanship, Snead transforms himself from bug-eyed crank to religious fanatic to murderous monster.

Guirgis, a native New Yorker and colleague of Philip Seymour Hoffman, is considered one of the finest young playwrights working today. However, despite considerable virtuosity in his dialogue (and an abundance of F-words), there isn't enough story to carry the two-hour show. Eliminating 30 or so minutes from the script would concentrate its power in the highly charged scenes between Cruz and Lucius.

Two of the five characters are unnecessary. A second guard (S. Wayne Melnick) and Cruz's attorney (Jen Meharg) address the audience in cardboard speeches filled with aphorisms and pointless exposition. However, a crucial religious conversion near the end of the play is not even dramatized.

With chain link and barbed wire, Mercedes L. Schaum's set creates a chest-tightening sense of confinement. And lighting designer Joe Doran punctuates a number of dramatic moments with shadows and silhouettes.

I can't pretend to unravel the tangle of issues of faith that Guirgis weaves. In fact, no single theme seems to crystallize by the end of the play. With some clarifications and a little trimming here and there, this might have become an astonishing piece of work. But even as it is, there's enough dazzling dialogue to make the show worth seeing. — Jerrell Nickerson

"Jesus Hopped the A-Train" continues through July 25 at the Little Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets are $18 ($10 for students). Call 282-2620.

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