At the Russian Hall until Aug. 25
Tickets: brownpapertickets.com or cash at the door
Wow. These six guys (Chris Cook, Brett Harris, Mike Klemak, Matt Reznek, Sebastien Archibald and Colby Wilson) are so right on, it’s awesome. And MOJO is also ITSAZOO director Chelsea Haberlin’s most accomplished work to date.
The play, written by Jez Butterworth in 1995 but set in Soho in the late ’50s, is tough and gritty: language to fry your ears, Cockney accents and rhyming slang that make you work hard to catch it all and fractured dialogue that flies at you like shrapnel. But it’s all about characters for whom you don’t give a flying fig.
So what’s the attraction? Some of the tightest ensemble playing you’ll see in this town. These actors aren’t “acting,” this isn’t “dialogue”— they are ranting at or rapping with each other, really listening to each other and are so in the moment, you can’t help but be, too.
The plot, however, is not really clear, but here’s what seems to be happening. Ezra (whom we never see) owns the Atlantic Club in Soho; headliner there is rock star, pelvis-twisting Silver Johnny (Reznek, who shows up briefly at the beginning and again at the end). Ezra and big-shot gangster Sam Ross (whom we also never see) are in some sort of high-stakes, under-the-table negotiation to move Silver Johnny, the goose that’s laying the golden egg, into the big time. It isn’t clear what Ezra’s relationship to scaredy-cat Skinny (Cook), jittery Sweets (Archibald), cocksure Potts (Wilson) and menacing Mickey (Klemak) is, but the four of them seem to think they’re going to get very, very rich off whatever the deal is. Baby (Harris) is Ezra’s son and a very loose cannon. One minute he’s giggling, rock and rolling up a storm, ingratiating himself to everyone and then—bam!—out comes a gun. Harris is positively electrifying in the role.
Playwright Butterworth knew and admired Harold Pinter who played Sam Ross in the 1997 movie version. It’s interesting that both the Ezra and Ross characters appear in the movie but not in the play; I’m betting that someone decided the plot needed clarifying—film being a lot more demanding in this respect than stage.
MOJO is reminiscent of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross: same splintered dialogue, undercurrents of violence, abundance of testosterone and hierarchical conflicts. Seven male characters in the Mamet play; six in Butterworth’s. MOJO, however, is far grittier, grungier and someone turns up in two pieces in two bloodied garbage cans.
Iris Bannerman is the dialect coach and she has whipped these guys into amazing shape with all those dropped h’s, the substitution of “f” for “th” and the rhythm of Butterworth’s chopped dialogue. In the slightly skuzzy basement of the Russian Hall, it feels like it could really be some smoky, beer-stained dump in Soho.
Director Haberlin uses the basement as the backstage area of the Atlantic Club. We first see Silver Johnny, brightly illuminated, from the back as he faces what we imagine to be the club audience. We are seated on chairs down the sides of the room and sight lines for this opening scene are not good for those on one side. It is, otherwise, a good setup. In Act 2, we move upstairs and are seated at little round tables as we would were we in a club. Sight lines here are also, now and again, not great when some of the characters join the audience at the tables.
MOJO is not a play you “like”; there is not one character you feel any sympathy for (except, possibly, for the chopped-in-two character, but then he was one we never met, anyway). The characters are all petty punks, smalltime wheeler-dealers with absolutely no redeeming qualities. But the performances are awesome—every one. And it’s a big step forward for ITSAZOO.