As Lucius Jenkins in "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train," Frank Britton is a holy terror. Lucius is a convicted murderer, and Britton's fierce Lucius — whose echoes of Lucifer aren't accidental — unflinchingly owns up to that harsh truth.
In Stephen Adly Guirgis's gripping prison drama of good and evil, Lucius also believes he has found God. Britton plays that, too, with a zeal so focused that he surely converts audiences on the spot.
The good news about this revival of Guirgis's durable 2000 script is that it finds the Tysons Corner troupe 1st Stage doing perhaps its finest work yet. Britton is part of a balanced ensemble richly inhabiting the show co-directed by 1st Stage Artistic Director Alex Levy and Juan Francisco Villa.
The verbally fiery "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" is a bravura play: The dialogue can be ear-scaldingly profane, and the heaven-or-hell speeches soar like theological arias. The show's five actors consistently deliver Guirgis's high drama with an inspired mix of saltiness and soul.
Jessica Cancino's smart, starkly lighted set turns the small theater into a powerful in-the-round space. (Not all in-the-round spaces are powerful.) The stage is slightly bigger than a prison cell and raised high like a boxing ring; it's a great platform for characters talking fast and acting big.
The performers include Luis Alberto Gonzalez as Angel, a man who shot a fake preacher in the buttocks and doesn't believe it's a crime. Gonzalez is terrific at depicting Angel's oddly endearing combination of streetwise swagger and innocence. He's the kind of vulnerable figure you fear for in jail, and no match for the moral seductions and twisting, fervent sermons of Britton's determined Lucius.
Teresa Castracane is effectively blunt as Angel's attorney; Jose Guzman is silky and smug as the prison guard; and Robert Heinly makes the most of a brief appearance paying tribute to the fascinating Lucius. Consider Guirgis's play fully invigorated by this ensemble.
The same can't be said for Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced" at 1st Stage's Herndon neighbor, NextStop Theatre. The incendiary 90-minute drama about a wealthy, powerful, young Wall Street Muslim American derailed by discrimination and self-deception was sharply acted at Arena Stage just last year. The shock-value laughs and affronted gasps are fewer and further between in this version.
It's not that director Thembi Duncan's actors are off track, exactly. In the central role of Amir, Jesse Bhamrah is often quite good with the dry barbs that turn bitter during the play's hilarious and then politically abrasive dinner scene among New York's smart set.
But "Disgraced" is geometrically rounded out by Amir's white girlfriend and rising art star Emily, her Jewish art dealer, the art dealer's African American wife (who is also Amir's colleague), and Amir's nephew, who asks his lawyer uncle to help an unjustly jailed imam. Everyone has hot takes and lived experience regarding identity and America. It's a play with intensely keen ears. Even unintended insults get picked up.
This respectful performance is missing that kind of social sonar. It's never boring, and aside from distracting costumes that make the stylish artist Emily look uncomfortable with her wardrobe, the show compellingly lures the audience into Akhtar's unsettling moral arguments. But a holy terror it's not.
Jesus Hopped the "A" Train, by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Alex Levy and Juan Francisco Villa. Costumes, Danielle Preston; lights, Brittany Shemuga; sound, Kenny Neal. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Oct. 8 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons Corner. Tickets $33. Call 703-854-1856 or visit 1ststagetysons.org. Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Thembi Duncan. Set, Jack Golden; costumes, Kristina Martin; lights, Jonathan Alexander; sound, Kevin Alexander. With Jenna Rossman, Chaela Phillips, Nahm Darr and Jordan Friend. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 1 at Next Stop Theatre Company, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon. Tickets $35-$55. Call 866-811-4111 or visit nextstoptheatre.org.