Frenetically fueled by pill-popped speed, The Studio 2ndStage’s production of British playwright Jez Butterworth’s Mojo hits the right tempo for a journey to rock-n-rolla gangland. These petty mobsters are simmering with ineptitude and obscenity while wielding cutlass and cake. In a 1950’s Britain fast overrun by squealing girls obsessed with rockstars, they are grasping at a chance to make it big. Unfortunately for them, it’s just not going to work out.
Butterworth’s play won the 1995 Olivier Award, and the frantic rhythm of the language is the real star here. Director Christopher Gallu has his ensemble cast embracing that jittery, junkie cadence with total commitment. While the accents may not always be spot on, the underlying backbone of the language is a joy – interjections and overlapping dialogue combined with playful postering that can turn to danger on a dime.
It feels like the love child of Guy Ritchie and David Mamet.
Though the framework of the play centers around a flimsy scheme for the gang’s nightclub to make money off its star performer, Silver Johnny (Logan DalBello), at its core is the age-old battle for supremacy once a strong leader dies. Nightclub owner Ezra meets a grisly end, to the dismay of his underlings, who then scuffle for top dog. Chief among these is Mickey (Scot McKenzie), who appears to be tough as nails but has dirty business of his own going on. The frantic dealer of pills, aptly named Sweets (a baby-faced Matt Dewberry, an absolute riot), attempts to make sense of it all while his associate Potts (Danny Gavigan) stews. Meanwhile the weakest link, Skinny (Dylan Meyers) suffers the sociopathic abuse of Ezra’s son Baby (Daniel Eichner). All twist and turn as the outside noose of stronger ganglords gets tighter. Who will come out on top?
Butterworth has said that he is profoundly influenced by Harold Pinter, and that’s evident in the power struggle seen here – the battle for control both over oneself and others. There’s a bit of Prince Hal as well, as the damaged Baby slowly attempts to reins them all in. The seeming charisma of Potts (well done by Danny Gavigan, who reminded me a bit of Clive Owen. That is, Clive Owen on amphetamines) is just an empty shell – his swagger hides his weakness just as Mickey’s enigmatic cold hides his. As for eternal dishrag Skinny, he’s the ultimate fractured mirror to Baby’s twisted prince, as victim and tormentor dance endlessly round each other. Speaking of mirrors, Dylan Meyers seems to be brilliantly channeling Alan Ford’s timbre and distinctive east London cockney (Ford’s best known to American audiences as Brick Top in Snatch, though Skinny is as weak as Brick Top is vicious).
My main performance quibbles are Daniel Eichner’s accent, which wavers (though his Machiavellian smolder is excellent), and that exterior Scot McKenzie displays as Mickey’s shield is a little too blank at times. But as the mission of The Studio 2ndStage is to nurture emerging artists, I’m inclined to overlook minor issues. Overall the production is fast-paced and genuinely funny. The audience was laughing uproariously the night I attended. It’s schadenfreude laughter, punctuated by gasps of surprise. Enjoy the frenzied energy.
The Studio 2ndStage performs Mojo through December 26 at the Studio Theatre, located at 1501 14th Street NW, Washington DC 20005. Closest Metro stop: McPherson Square (Orange/Blue lines). For more information call 202.332.3300.