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'Mojo': Sky-High on Their
Own Potent Poetry
NEW YORK -- Little white pills, diet pills stolen from a mother's medicine cabinet, are the drug of choice in "Mojo," the electrifying new play from the young British dramatist Jez Butterworth. They do turn your urine black and you have to take scads to feel anything, but, boy, can they make a guy talk.
Pumped to the bursting point by these pharmaceutical helpers, with the pulse of 1950s rock-and-roll in their heads and the smell of easy money in their nostrils, the nasty Londoners who populate this remarkable debut drama, which opened Monday night at the Atlantic Theater Co., register as natural-born poets.
"You're all doing six million miles an hour," one character observes testily. "Yap, yap, yap." It's true: the words, often obscene and specifically physical, fly back and forth like the balls in a hyped-up Ping-Pong match in "Mojo," a tale of men under siege in a funky Soho nightclub in 1958. But even when you can't follow them, these words are likely to make you feel that you've taken something pretty potent yourself. And when you leave the theater at the end of two hours, the odds are you'll be high as a kite.
That it's such a good-feeling high may come as a surprise. After all, what has just occurred, realized by a tightly woven ensemble under Neil Pepe's direction, has been nasty business: a raw meal of greed, paranoia and betrayal. Blood is spilled amid such scenic accents as garbage bins filled with the halves of a bisected man.
But Butterworth's characters also happen to be the most fiercely funny and eloquent lot of losers since David Mamet's small-time con men fumbled through "American Buffalo" 20 years ago. The language, both highly stylized and brutally visceral, is what gives "Mojo" its magic and its sky-high adrenaline level. Language, in fact, is the real drug of choice here.
Since opening in London at the Royal Court Theater in 1995, "Mojo" has been heaped with prizes. (Butterworth has also just finished directing a film version.) And even Americans unfamiliar with Soho accents and English jive should have no difficulty seeing why. The work is a testament to the truth that plays will always be able to achieve things that other media cannot.
New reminders of this artistic fact of life don't happen all that often. And seeing and hearing "Mojo" suggests the excitement of discovering Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard or Mamet for the first time. While London critics have compared the play to the movie "Pulp Fiction," there's nothing cinematic about what the 28-year-old Butterworth does here. The heated jerks, jitters and explosions come not through camera angles and cross-cutting, but through a meticulous patterning of repeated images and phrases that seem to ricochet, grow and mutate in the actors' mouths.
The structure of "Mojo" is summed up by one of its characters: "Big up and then a big dipper down." Following one momentous day in the lives of six employees of a seedy but popular dance club cashing in on the new vogue for Little Richard-style music, the work itself seems to follow the rhythms of a Benzedrine experience: a decline from euphoria into anxiety and, finally, desperation.
There's a spurious tang of hope at the beginning. Sweets (Patrick Fitzgerald) and Potts (Matthew Ross), young men who will probably never really leave adolescence, are popping their pills and eagerly discussing the prospects of becoming rich off the club's star performer. That's a boy singer called Silver Johnny (Joseph Kern), whose effect on his female audience is described with lurid anatomical precision.
Potts and Sweets are outside the office where Johnny's future is being discussed with an unseen, sinister entrepreneur with banana-colored hair and enviable buckskin shoes. Such details count for a lot in this world.
The rest of "Mojo" is about how everything goes wrong. Johnny disappears; Ezra, the club's owner, is found dead; and Ezra's partner, Mickey (Jordan Lage), turns the club into a fortress against homicidal enemies. Also on hand are Ezra's son, the slightly demented-seeming Baby (Clark Gregg) and the inappropriately named Skinny (Chris Bauer), Mickey's right-hand man. No one, it turns out, is entirely to be trusted.
Under ideal circumstances, you would be introduced to "Mojo" by an English cast. But the largely American ensemble here handles the alien accents with surprising zest. The actors are also, in many cases, veterans of fast-talking Mamet productions, and, under Pepe's taut direction, they bring an organic rock-style rhythm and energy to the play's cadenced web of images.
Though you wouldn't think so watching it, "Mojo" can be taken apart like an intricate poem. Within the vernacular flow of conversation, Butterworth weaves in a host of sensory allusions that conjure a disjointed world of appetite, consumption (from those little pills to a wretched cake dyed blue) and blurred identity.
Listen to Gregg's Baby speaking with eerie, bland sincerity of how Skinny has stolen his very walk, or remembering the slaughter of a cow. (Gregg is so appealingly creepy that you forget that he's too old for the part.) Notice the lyrical lust that invests descriptions of Buicks and pleated pants. Or hear Potts and Sweets rhapsodizing about the club's new decorative scheme of sequins: "The whole joint sparkles like the briny deep."
Walt Spangler's grotty sets (we get to see the sequins in the second act) and David Yazbek's intense, drum-driven music create an articulate sense of the cultural ethos from which these people spring. And while the babbling would-be hipsters of "Mojo" are often funny, there's a pervasive sense of home-grown evil and violated innocence at the work's core.
A tiny antique gun figures in "Mojo." When it's first seen, it's a visual joke and the source of much merriment. Don't trust first impressions. The gun packs a wallop. So does the play.
By Jez Butterworth; directed by Neil Pepe; sets by Walt Spangler; lighting by Tyler Micoleau; costumes by Laura Bauer; original music by David Yazbek; production stage manager, Darcy Stephens; fight staging, B.H. Barry; general manager, Bardo S. Ramirez; production manager, Tor Ekeland for Crux. Presented by Atlantic Theater Co., Pepe, artistic director; Hilary Hinckle, managing director. At 336 West 20th St.
With: Joseph Kern (Silver Johnny), Patrick Fitzgerald (Sweets), Matthew Ross (Potts), Clark Gregg (Baby), Chris Bauer (Skinny) and Jordan Lage (Mickey)