Mojo's a No-Go

I tried to watch English director Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels on video once, but I gave up after thirty minutes or so. Maybe there's something about the combination of wretched and unlikable protagonists, aimless activity, a snickering approach to violence and lots of splattered blood that's uniquely expressive of our times, but I guess I'm too old-fashioned and sentimental to understand it. Boosters of Jez Butterworth's Mojo claim the play was a big influence on Ritchie; certainly it's in the same vein. So when I settled into my seat at the Acoma Center for the Paragon production, I should have known what I was in for.

This is a mean-spirited play about a group of losers -- all male, of course -- vying for dominance, both sexual and monetary. The plot has something to do with a club; a new singing star called Silver Johnny; two men hoping for glitzy, American-style fame; another aping the style and speech of American gangsters; a pathetic created-to-be-hurt loser called Skinny, who you know won't live to see the end of the evening. (Skinny's function is like that of a puppy in any hyper-violent work, to provide pathos and die. I've been waiting for the bloodied white carcass ever since Adriana walked her fluffy pooch on The Sopranos.) Then there's baleful, violent Baby, aptly named because he's nothing but an oversized, destructive toddler who owes his vile disposition to the fact that he was raped as a child by his father. Mojo is set in 1958, which means we at least get to hear a couple of great Gene Vincent and Little Richard songs.

Butterworth's script does have some strengths. It sets up interesting staccato rhythms and silences that bulge with black menace. There's a Pinter-esque tendency to speak around the issues and come at events sideways. There's also some very funny and imaginative dialogue, particularly between Potts and Sweets, who seem to be Butterworth's version of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or Beckett's tramps. Occasionally, you hear a jazzy solo worthy of Sam Shepard, and there's a nasty, funny, poignant Quentin Tarantino-style death scene (guess whose death). In short, Butterworth, who was 25 when Mojo hit the stage in 1995, followed precisely the path you'd expect of an ambitious, would-be working-class young male playwright.

Unfortunately, the script's occasional virtues are hard to discern in the Paragon production -- in fact, it's difficult simply to follow the plot -- because the actors' English accents are almost all hopeless. The most effective performances are those of Garret Glass and Michael Stricker as, respectively, Sweets and Potts. Glass, his blond hair rigidly slicked back, comes across as young, would-be tough and sourly innocent. Stricker has a squirrelly physicality and a smile like a chipmunk's; he tends to writhe. These actors' accents may not be perfect, but they're reasonably consistent. They do well with the rhythms of the language, and work so well together that you feel something approaching real, if cracked, affection between them. His hair shoe-polish black, Warren Sherrill is quietly convincing as Mickey, both when he's raging and when he's silenced and nonplussed. Eric Ross gives Skinny just the right degree of hapless limpness, but his accent is one of the worst on the stage, and it gets in the way. And Todd Webster, equally badly accented, plays Baby. He puts a lot of energy into the part, but the performance feels ungrounded, and I found it hard to watch.

Perhaps Butterworth's nihilism seemed particularly offensive set against the accelerating chaos and slaughter of our times. Perhaps its significance dwindled beside the rich humanism of Anthony Zerbe and Roscoe Lee Browne's Behind the Broken Words, which I saw a few days later. No matter the reason, I'd advise giving Mojo a miss.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman