SharoneA Riker’s Island rooftop — represented by nothing more than two tall chain-link cages standing side-by-side — is the principal setting of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ gritty and profanity-laced comedy-drama, “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.”

Juan Castano stars as Angel, a terrified young man who has made a terrible, if well-intentioned, mistake: in an effort to save his pal, who has been brainwashed into joining a religious cult, he has gunned down the cult’s elderly leader. Angel can’t understand why he’s in jail; the guy’s not dead (yet) and even his own court- appointed attorney, Ms. Hanrahan, can’t convince him of the trouble he’s in. When he’s not railing at her during one of their increasingly contentious jailhouse meetings, he curls up into a little ball and refuses to speak to anyone, at all.

It’s not until he meets Lucius, a serial killer-turned-born-again-Bible-thumper, that he begins — reluctantly at first, then with more and more confidence — to open up. When Lucius isn’t toning up his body, he’s sharing with Angel his thoughts on religion; when he’s not offering Angel a smoke, or savoring one himself, he’s trying to teach him the rules of prison survival.

Director Sharone Halevy coaxes fine performances out of her cast of five, particularly Jordan Mahome, whose high-octane, serio-comic turn as Lucius never fails to command our attention, and Castano, as the crushed young man who begs God for forgiveness even though he knows he doesn’t deserve it. Jake Hart as the sadistic guard Valdez, whose hatred of Lucius borders on the obsessive, John L. Payne as Valdez’s counterpart, a sympathetic guard whose decency gets him sacked, and Christy Escobar as Angel’s haunted but hard-working lawyer turn in good work, as well.

Halevy stages the piece with surprising fluidity; considering that much of the action is confined to those cages, and there is not a whole lot of movement (or even plot; this is very much a character- and dialogue-driven play), she does a remarkable job of putting the actors through their paces, and making sure the audience’s attention never flags.

Halevy and her cast are clearly talents to watch. It will be interesting to see the kinds of challenging projects they tackle next.

(NOTE: “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” will be playing at the 16th Street Theater, a part of the Atlantic Theater Company, only through Sunday, March 24th.)

THEATRE REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien