When Carlos del Valle, as a man accused of shooting a religious cult leader, and Marc Stevens, as a convicted serial killer, are alone on stage in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, the sense of danger spills over into the audience at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.
As directed by Barry Feinstein, these two bristling performances are the strongest elements in Stephen Adly Guirgis' raw, profanity-laden prison drama - a play that examines religion, desperation, friendship, hatred, the justice system, the criminal mind, truth and lying to yourself.
Guirgis began his career as an actor and spent several years working in an arts-education program at Rikers Island prison. So it isn't surprising that he gives his lead actors meaty roles that allow them to display range, or that he brings gritty verisimilitude to his prison setting.
In Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, Stevens' Lucius Jenkins is a prison veteran when del Valle's nervous newcomer, Angel Cruz, shows up. Angel's life inside is just beginning, but for Lucius, a death-row inmate fighting extradition to Florida, it may be drawing to a close.
The difference in the inmates' attitudes is graphically demonstrated in their first and last encounters in the Rikers yard. Stevens' Lucius, who has found God while behind bars, starts out talking quietly to del Valle's taciturn Angel, trying to draw him out. By their final scene together, it's Lucius who refuses to talk, despite Angel's entreaties.
What happens between these scenes is that Bible-thumping, rational-sounding Lucius begins to toy with Angel's impressionable mind. Angel wound up in this place because of his anger at religious hypocrisy. Now Lucius' relentless brand of religion starts to make him doubt his motives. When that happens, even Angel's attorney (earnestly played by Jane Steffen) finds her do-gooder efforts threatened.
Not all of Feinstein's cast members are as adept at modulating their performances as del Valle or the impressive Stevens. Eli Jackson, for example, depicts a sanitation worker-turned-prison guard with almost non-stop rage.
But seeing this hard-edged play the same week as the Baltimore Opera's Dead Man Walking reinforces the power of gifted artists to illuminate some of the darkest corners of humanity.
Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through April 8. Tickets are $15. Call 410-752-1225 or visit spot lighters.org.
"Men of Clay" opens
Men of Clay - native Baltimorean Jeff Cohen's play about his father, which received a staged reading at the Creative Alliance in July - opens at off-Broadway's Abingdon Theatre on April 2.
Speaking from his home in New York, Cohen, 48, said the play, which is set partly on the tennis courts at Druid Hill Park, hasn't undergone many changes since its Baltimore reading. The same cannot be said about the playwright himself.
Cohen had expected his first original play to make its debut at Worth Street Theater, the company he founded in 1995. But due to what he calls "internal conflicts," Worth Street met its demise and Cohen founded a new company, Dog Run Repertory Theatre, which is co-producing Men of Clay with Pennsylvania's Theatre Outlet.
Dog Run's name stems from the fact that Cohen met his wife, Sydney, when they were both walking dogs at a run in Riverside Park. He proposed to her on the same spot. The couple was married in September but not before Cohen underwent an unscripted medical drama.
Shortly after the Creative Alliance reading, he was playing in a tennis tournament in New York on an especially hot day. "I thought I was suffering from heat exhaustion. I found out two weeks later I'd had a heart attack," he says. His doctor sent him to the emergency room, where he had a stent implanted. His wedding went on, as scheduled, Sept. 17.
Now he's in rehearsals, directing a cast headed by Matthew Arkin, Steve Rattazzi and Danton Stone in Men of Clay, which begins performances March 30.
The 2 p.m. April 1 performance is earmarked for Baltimore audiences. For $85, Baltimore theatergoers get round-trip fare on a chartered bus to the theater (312 W. 36th St.), admission to the play and a post-show reception.
The Creative Alliance audience included not only Cohen's father, Stanley, but also his father's 1970s tennis buddies, who are portrayed on stage. "Everybody I mentioned in the play wound up coming," says Cohen, who expects to see the same contingent in New York.
But while the play may be about events in the past, Cohen is definitely looking ahead. "It feels like this is an appropriate way, revisiting my past, to begin my future," he says.
For tickets for the April 1 package or any other performance, call 212-868-4444 or visit smarttix.com.