Sometimes rock and roll isn’t all sex, drugs, and parties; with enough money on the line, it can turn deadly. At least that’s what the hustlers, pill poppers, and wise guys populating a 1950’s London juke joint discover as they explore the dark side of the music business in Jez Butterworth’s electric play Mojo, now playing at the Studio Theatre.
This dark, clever trip through the gritty underworld of the London music scene has garnered numerous awards and a moderately successful film adaptation, effectively launching Butterworth’s career and establishing him as one of the preeminent British playwrights of his generation.
Mojo follows Sweets, Potts, Baby, Skinny, and Mickey as they try to ride the coattails of newly discovered talent Silver Johnny to the top of the music game. Things get complicated when a local gangster takes a great interest in their young protege and refuses to take no for an answer, ultimately leading the group down a dangerous path of violence, paranoia, and betrayal.
Due to their calamitous dealings with the aforementioned gangster, the small group is cloistered away in two small sections of the bar for most of the show. Like the jury room in 12 Angry Men or the pawn shop in American Buffalo, the claustrophobic atmosphere ramps up the tension and enhances the effect of the contentious, rapid-fire dialogue. Butterworth has a wonderful flair for conversation, evidenced by the raw, biting wit and ingenious turns of phrase showcased throughout the script.
Of course, a dynamite script is worthless without quality performers – something Mojo has in spades.
Daniel Eichner steals with the show with his complex, terrifying take on the erratic sociopath Baby. Eichner swings wildly back and forth between calm, smiling contemplation and shocking outbursts of violence. The dreadful anticipation of Baby’s next strange, savage episode makes his performance all the more mesmerizing.
Dylan Myers also gives an inspired turn as the hopelessly neurotic and spineless Skinny. As the constant target of the others’ jokes, as well as Baby’s frightening aggression, he’s quite the pitiable soul. Skinny’s sniveling and cowering wears slightly thin by the second act, but this can be pinned mostly on Butterworth’s plot decision for Baby to ceaselessly victimize the bespectacled naïf.
The duo of Danny Gavigan and Matt Dewberry excels as a sort of amphetamine-fueled Abbott and Costello. As the smooth-talking schemer Potts and good-natured candy addict Sweets, they exhibit marvelous chemistry and provide consistent laughs with their patter of energetic rants and snarky inside jokes. Scot McKenzie gives an admirable turn as strong, level headed leader Mickey, who is tasked with holding the fractious group together. Logan DalBello is appropriately charming in his short stage time as teen heartthrob Silver Johnny.
Director Christopher Gallu has whipped his actors into shape, and the hard work shows in the seamless machine-gun dialogue and carefully choreographed madness that unfolds in the tight space of the bar. The visual design also deserves praise for vintage detail and perfectly measured gore. As a huge horror movie fan, I was particularly pleased to see that the production staff had pulled no punches when creating the show’s bloody centerpiece.
The well-drawn characters, whip smart dialogue, and uneasy truce between comedy and cruelty all contribute to a terrific production that suffers only slightly from repetitive plotting. Mojo is a rowdy, hard-charging beast of a show that will leave you shaken but undeniably entertained.
By Jez Butterworth
Directed by Christopher Gallu
Produced by Studio 2nd Stage
Reviewed by Ben Demers
- Chris Klimek . City Paper
Mari Davis . ShowBizRadio
- Jenn Larson . WeLoveDC
Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner