Edgy 'Mojo' has a set but lacks a focus

Jez Butterworth

The Mary-Arrchie Theatre at Angel Island, a tatty but venerable second-floor theatrical venue, just reopened after convincing the City of Chicago that it was safe for the general public. City inspectors, as a rule, worry more about exit lights than the quality of the set.

But one thing is sure: David Cromer's Mary-Arrchie revival of Jez Butterworth's guttural, edgy "Mojo," a play located in a nasty music venue and concerned with the sleazeballs of the early London rock scene, is the most evocative physical production that Mary-Arrchie has presented in its entire 20-year history.

Maybe it's just that this particular section of Sheridan Road has something in common with the messy Soho area of London, circa 1959. Most likely, though, it's that Cromer (an exacting director with an exacting sense of place) has hit on what could be a very long and fruitful partnership with the fine emerging design team of Elizabeth Schuch (sets), A. Cameron Zetty (lights), and the sound-design team of Josh Schmidt and Andy Sewell.

This crowd also worked on "Journey's End" together — to great acclaim. As the likes of Mary Zimmerman have shown, the best work in nascent Chicago theater often happens when this kind of team finds each other. And for a theater at this budgetary level, the carefully sculpted teamwork here is nothing short of extraordinary.

Would one say the same of the storytelling. Although a hot work in the late 1990s, when such comparable young British nihilists as Mark Ravenhill and Patrick Marber were very much in vogue, "Mojo" (written when Butterworth was in his mid-20s) is far from a great or a lasting play. It does not stand up favorably to far more thoughtful works such as Marber's recently filmed "Closer."

The all-male piece has a certifiable shock factor in its language and it potently evokes a drug-filled milieu wherein a bunch of grasping, self-serving clowns fall over each other trying to squeeze the maximum personal benefit from a young teen-idol type. And Cromer has cast a bevy of young and very intense actors — the stellar likes of Robert Fagin and Hans Fleischmann — all of whom have their moments here.

But the main point of the show and/or the production is it never quite breaks out from the slice-of-life that Cromer puts on display with such deft skill and flourish.

Cromer's "Mojo" bears very credible witness to a style and place, but it lacks tension and focus. The acting is all very solid, but it lacks contrast and shading. And as a result, a kind of puerile wash permeates the show, with all of the depressing losers standing handsomely on a great-looking set, but nonetheless all starting to look and feel much the same.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading