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A CurtainUp Review

I somehow resisted going to review this play. It was a major hit in London and collected a laundry list of prizes, including the prestigious Olivier. As sometimes happens, especially with English comedies with dense accents, its transfer to Off-Broadway left New York audiences and critics divided as to its pleasures and palatability. The same week I received a last-chance-to-see invitation as a Drama Desk voter I met a young London artist on the subway. In the course of steering her to her destination we got to talking about the theater and she urged me not to miss Mojo. So I went, and, with the closing less than a fortnight away, here's my countdown review.

To sum up the plot, Mojo is a moldy slice of life as lived in the underbelly of a big city's world of would-be entertainment entrepreneurs with petty crime connections. In a world of winners and losers, there isn't a character you'll meet who comes close to being a winner--or a winning personality. Their hunger for a slice of the good life is fed by greed, amorality and overwhelming stupidity and, in the case of two bumbling hirelings named Sweets (Patrick Fitzgerald) and Potts (Matthew Ross), a steady diet of pills.

The setting for this expletive studded comedy of errors and bloodshed is a second-rate 1958 rock and roll club with vague gangland connections and a performer named Silver Johnny (Joseph Kern) in the Elvis-Little Richard mode who embodies their ticket to the big time. However, since the dramatic arc is that of a murder mystery, (complete with a smoking miniature antique gun produced in the first act and doing its inevitable work in the last), the "star" vanishes, Ezra is killed and his partner Mickey (Jordan Lage) and the rest of the motley crew of wannabe rock and roll millionaires spend the rest of the play desperately trying to avoid Ezra's fate. Ezra and his probably killer never appear (unless you count Ezra's body parts in two garbage cans)

Am I glad saw it?

Yes. Butterworth does capture a certain verbal cadence which with time may e more distinctly his own than an amalgm of predecessors whose mantle has been thrown around his shoulders (Mamet, Pinter, Sam Shepard plus a dab of Brecht). His choice of the late fifties time frame hardly represents the usual young writer's exploration of his own generation. Instead it seems tied to the proven popularity of such films as Pulp Fiction and L.A. Confidential. The background era also seems to invite comparison to the angry older men to whose youths it is more closely linked. On the other hand, while the time is 1958, the theme of a society in which drugs, greed and under-education prevail is less history than in-your-face reality.

Would I recommend that you rush to see it while you can?

Yes, if you appreciate a small but well paced and designed production as this one under the directorship of Neil Pepe is. And, yes if you appreciate outstanding ensemble acting. The Atlantic Theater cast couldn't be better and I suspect it has improved from the time the show opened to its current last weeks. Yes too, if you're a Quentin Tarantino fan -- but then movie buffs might prefer Mojo from the can rather than live. The movie, which is already made was directed by Butterworth and stars no less than one of his theatrical forbears, Harold Pinter. It may also deal better with making the dialogue less muddled and at times incomprehensible.

No, if you expect to be completely bowled over by its characters as "poets" as some critics have been . No, if vulgar is vulgar -- as it is to the small group of intermission walk-outs that have been reported to me and that were confirmed the evening I attended. No, if you want an evening that's fully comprehensible both in its meaning and language.

In summary, Mojo has many moments of genuine absurdist humor. However, you're hardly going to leave this play exhausted from laughing or in a particular jovial mood. It will jar and grate on your sensibilities. What it won't do is engage your emotions.

As for whether you'll be seeing the work of a major new playwright, only time will tell whether all the buzz surrounding this play and its author is warranted or a case of the Emperor's Clothes. A lot will depend on the continuing acceptance of the debasing of language to the lowest common denominator.

by Jez Butterworth.
Directed by Neil Pepe
With: Chris Bauer Patrick Fitzgerald, Clark Gregg, Joseph Kern, Jordan Lage and Matthew Ross
Sets by Walt Spangler
Lighting by Tyler Micoleau
Costumes by Laura Bauer
Original music by David Yazbek
Atlantic Theater 336 West 20th St. betw. 8th & 9th Aves
-opened 11/20/97-closing 1/17/98
reviewed by Elyse Sommer

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