Jez Butterworth's 'Mojo' makes magic out of menace at Studio 2ndStage
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Among Washington's first-rank theaters, the one that has proven the most dependable in providing boosts to emerging actors is Studio Theatre and, more to the point, its 2ndStage program. This distinction continues with its latest offering, Jez Butterworth's "Mojo," a funny, tightly wound thriller of English thuggery that makes for another excellent Studio showcase for fresh talent.
"Mojo" has taken the slow route getting to an important theater here - it was first staged in London 15 years ago - but with director Christopher Gallu's secure handling, the wait can be forgiven. With nods to the blistering language and dirty dealings of the comedies of David Mamet, Butterworth mines the perverse humor that can be found along the dark caverns of tragedy.
In this instance, the milieu is a shady sewer of show business populated by parasitic hucksters and short-tempered ne'er-do-wells. We're in a seedy London club in 1958, when some coarse, would-be promoters are wrestling over control of the career of a fourth-rate singer by the name of Silver Johnny (Logan DalBello), whose marginal claim to fame seems to be a silver suit and an ability to mimic the rubber legs of Elvis Presley.
The twisted joke is that to the backstage losers of "Mojo" - pill-popping gofers and trigger-happy nut jobs - Silver Johnny is akin to prize livestock, an asset worth protecting at almost any cost. Other underworld types apparently have their eye on Johnny as well. Up to now, the motley crew run by the poker-faced Mickey (Scot McKenzie) had been in the dead-end business of wiring jukeboxes. So after Silver Johnny turns up missing - and Mickey's boss turns up in a pair of trash receptacles - Mickey and his manic underlings barricade themselves in the club, terrified and uncertain of their next move.
Butterworth's insult-driven, off-color barbs are sharp grist for sketching out the corrosive relationships among men on the make. "Mojo," as a result, provides a delectably scabrous view from the bottom of the barrel, especially in its portrayal of three guys who occupy the bottom of the bottom. Sweets (Matt Dewberry) is a lumpen candy addict; Potts (Danny Gavigan) is a magnetic blowhard of a coward and Skinny (Dylan Myers) is a skittish, whining bundle of petty grievances.
These actors list on their resumes their work with small companies in and around the city, but impression-wise, "Mojo" represents a big step up for each of them. Gallu and 2ndStage have done a service, putting each under a spotlight. Myers turns Skinny into such a commendably petulant irritant that, like the other characters, you will feel an irresistible urge to wring his neck. Dewberry entertainingly invests Sweets with the personality tics of a young man harboring multiple anxieties. Even more effective is Gavigan, whose fine veneer of swagger conveys both the resentments and insecurities of a small-time hood who's got the will but not the wit to lead.
Gallu stages the play arena-style, in Studio's raw penthouse space. With just a few rows of seats on each of the theater's four sides, everyone is practically breathing on the actors. This does put a bit of extra pressure on the performances: You can hear all too clearly that some in the cast are more proficient than others in approximating the vowels of lower-class London. But the configuration also gives you an inviting opportunity to hunker down with these characters, to view up close what transpires when their goals conflict and their eyes meet.
The eyes that have the trickiest task belong to Daniel Eichner, who plays Baby, the erratic, entitled son of the club's owner and a bloke who gets his jollies tormenting the easily provoked Skinny. (In two instances, the lights come up on a scene that illuminates the extremes of Baby's proclivities.) Baby supplies a goodly portion of the evening's tension, its increasingly apparent malice; you laugh during "Mojo," but a sense of dread should cut through some of the giggles. You get the feeling that embodying a threat does not come naturally to Eichner, or that he and the director struggled with how soon in the evening to reveal the depth of Baby's pathology. In either case, the air needs to be suffused with a more profound degree of menace.
Even so, Eichner's reaction pays off in the play's culminating sequence, when an antipathy that's been simmering all through "Mojo" reaches its inevitable boiling point. It's thanks to the authoritative performance by McKenzie, as a weak man desperate to project strength, that the lid is kept on convincingly as long as it has been. Ultimately, though, McKenzie's Mickey proves as helpless as any of his charges to alter the course of nefarious events.
Gallu directs "Mojo" with a keen understanding of its peculiarly nervous energy, of the way terror can heighten a moment and hilarity can make itself felt, even on the precipice of violence. It's mayhem of a high order.
Mojo by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Christopher Gallu. Sets, Luciana Stecconi; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, John Burkland; sound, Brendon Vierra; choreography, Joe Isenberg; dialects, Elizabeth van den Berg. About 2 ½ hours.