Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train occurs almost entirely within the one-hour-per-day periods when two Rikers Island prisoners—Angel Cruz (Anthony Lam) and Lucius Jenkins (Bobby Bermea)—get to see the sun. Cruz awaits trial for the attempted murder of a cult leader (though Cruz says he "just shot him in the ass"). Jenkins, a serial killer who has found Christ in jail, passes time attempting to convert Cruz.

Within their ongoing conversations, Cruz reveals himself to be a touchy, agnostic God-hater in contrast to Jenkins’ relentless belief and guilty filibustering. (Bermea is a whirlwind of aggro praise hands and unhinged amens.) Both men are watched over and often interrupted by their sadistic guard, Valdez (Wasim No’Mani), who hates them equally with a general bad-guy antipathy. (Valdez is the atheist, duh.)

Cruz’s jaded public defender Mary Jane Hanrahan (Dana Millican) coaches him, in preparation for his trial, partly through trial-prep scenes, but also through monologues directly addressing the audience from some point after the events of the play. Curiously, Valdez has only one of these monologues, an unnecessary anecdote establishing his seething misanthropy and self-righteousness at the top of the first act. An even more minor character—Duffy Epstein’s kind guard D’Amico (Guirgis is not subtle with names), who Valdez replaces—gives one stray speech toward the end of the play about the redemptive and healing power of Jenkins’ Christian charisma.

Such monologues are the techniques of religious tracts and evangelical testimony: bald proselytizing that relies on the traditions of pulpit preaching over dramaturgy. In fact, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ script wouldn’t feel out of place on a church camp stage. But the performances of the leads, as well as CoHo’s typically evocative set design and lighting, make this production a compelling spectacle, if not a great story.

Buffeted on the choppy sea of Valdez’s sadism, Jenkins’ manic evangelism, and Hanrahan’s morally skewed pragmatism, Lam plays helplessness with an intense, tortured innocence, even when he’s confessing. He’s charming, likeable, innocent, and very guilty. That combination is sold nowhere better than in Millican’s captivated bafflement at his every word. And while Cruz and Valdez feel more like Christian caricatures of nonbelievers, Hanrahan feels like an actual person. Her arc is clearer than either Cruz’s or Jenkins’, but it ends with more ambiguity.

The moral assumptions of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train are basically Christian ones: Cruz feels guilt. He needs redemption. He wants God's forgiveness and can have it. Truth be told, it's about as predictable as most stories about Jesus, but the performances—especially from Lam and Bermea —make it hard to look away.