Star rating: *** out of 4
Brave is the American director who stages a play full of working-class London accents. Attempts to master cockney have tripped up actors from Dick Van Dyke to Don Cheadle—the nuances of the staple phrase “fark orf” are particularly troublesome to non-natives.
Perhaps it’s unfair to send me, a Londoner, to review such a show. For the most part, Mojo—currently playing at Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage—does a pretty good job of capturing cockney, and the show makes up for its shortcomings with some masterful performances. Jez Butterworth’s play, set in London’s Soho in the 1950s, requires actors to engage the audience for two hours using little more than obscure slang, pop-culture references, and a few odd props (a bag full of pharmaceuticals and a cutlass feature prominently). All while building suspense and the adrenaline of an amphetamine-fueled whodunnit. Agatha Christie it ain’t, but that’s a good thing.
The play opens with two geezers, Sweets (Matt Dewberry) and Potts (Danny Gavigan), discussing dealings in an upstairs room of the nightclub Ezra’s Atlantic. The pair are raggedly high, flipping from thought to thought as they wait a seemingly endless four minutes for tea to brew. An important meeting is taking place next door: The club’s teenage idol, Silver Johnny (Logan DalBello), whose career is aggressively managed by nightclub owner Ezra, is being pursued by a shadowy gangster, Mr. Ross, who wants to market him as the next Little Richard.
The pair’s frenetic, wandering discourse is interrupted by a few more club workers, including Skinny (Dylan Myers), a dopey but endearing goon who’s cruelly bullied by Baby (Daniel Eichner), Ezra’s semi-psychopathic son. In the next scene, it emerges that Ezra has been murdered (cut in half and disposed of in two club trash cans) and Silver Johnny has disappeared. Ezra’s number two, Mickey (Scot McKenzie), locks all the doors to keep anyone else from being targeted.
The play’s premise—in which five men, most of whom are absurdly high on speed, are locked inside a seedy nightclub with nothing to eat but whiskey, pills, and an unhealthily blue birthday cake—makes for fascinating theater, sort of like Survivor meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, except the paranoia here is legitimate. While the energy fades somewhat in the second half—mimicking the inevitable drug comedown—the cast does a good job of communicating power structures and subsequent conflicts.
Dylan Myers is exceptional as Skinny, the hapless, picked-on wannabe who’s unfailingly loyal to Mickey, his boss. Danny Gavigan and Matt Dewberry, as Sidney Potts and Sweets, carry much of the play with their hyperactive, frequently disgusting banter. As Baby, Daniel Eichner, the cast’s most experienced member, is the only disappointment—his accent is so bad (running the gamut from South African to Greek) that it deprives his character of any credibility, even though he does his best to shovel on the menace.
Directed by Christopher Gallu, Mojo is theater distilled: edgy, compelling, and powerful. Staged during a season of feel-good favorites and sugar-plum fairies, it cuts through the sentimentality like a sword through a London mobster.
At Studio Theatre through December 26. Tickets ($30) available here.
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