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Rock-'n'-rollas fall to pieces in Dad's Garage's Mojo

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Dad's Garage Theatre's darkly comic play Mojo suggests that pub-crawlers and bobby-soxers should steer clear of Ezra's Atlantic, a London nightclub in the midst of 1958's rising rock scene. After a potentially big deal goes horribly wrong, Ezra's employees and spongers hole up in the club to sort out their predicament and figure out who's on whose side. One cockney hustler declares, "One of us just got sawed in two, so I don't want to be on our side."

Mojo's blend of seedy underworld characters and Jacobean rivalries, not to mention the play's wicked use of violence, rock music and hyper-verbal comedy, put it clearly in the company of '90s-era bloody hipster films. Playwright Jez Butterworth wrote Mojo in the mid '90s, roughly between the release of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The chain of influence is hard to miss. (Dad's online trailer emphasizes the connection.) Given the 50-year-old slang and thick (if not always convincing) accents, audiences might want to rent Julien Temple's brassy musical Absolute Beginners for a refresher course on swinging London of the late 1950s.

At Dad's Garage Theatre's Top Shelf, the playhouse's ensemble feasts on the florid dialogue and high-tension confrontations. It makes for an entertaining production that still feels like a half-success – like a cover version of a song that never escapes the shadow of the original.

Matthew Myers and Scott Warren play Sweets and Potts, a pair of pill-popping small-timers hoping to get a piece of the action when a gangland big shot signs up their musical discovery, budding rock star Silver Johnny (Clint Sowell). The morning after the meeting, Ezra's psycho son Baby (Brent Rose), his manager Mickey (Doyle Reynolds) and others try to puzzle out what went wrong while picking up the pieces. Literally. Ezra's Atlantic becomes an unlikely safe house, and the increasingly stressed-out men inside don't know whether the next person through the door will be a heavily armed hit man or a rock fan with coins for the jukebox.

Directed by Dad's departing artistic director Kate Warner, Mojo takes pleasure from the spectacle of hearing Myers and Warren interrupt themselves, talk over each other, and wonder if "black piss" is enough to keep them from getting hopped up on goofballs. Potts' manipulative attempts to play it cool deflect Sweets' high-strung yammering. The rest of the performers, however, don't seem to be in exactly the same production as Mojo's comic-relief twosome.

With a mood of impending doom reminiscent of writer Harold Pinter (who played a role in Butterworth's film version), the other characters engage in ominous power struggles. The Champs' "Tequila" plays under one charged confrontation, while another scene begins with shirtless Baby holding a cutlass on hapless Skinny (Ed Morgan), his hands bound and pants down. You expect someone to ask, "Is this a bad time?"

Throughout the play, the audience wonders which, if any, of the characters will rise to the occasion and handle the crisis, or whether they're all irredeemably fallen. Skinny may be the low man on the Mojo totem pole, but Morgan portrays him as the most honest person, free of hidden agendas. As Mickey, Reynolds plays the closest thing to an authority figure, but his evasiveness and haunted aspect suggest he can't control the situation. Rose doesn't have the menacing presence that a hair-trigger, temperamental role like Baby calls for, and in general, the script contains a strain of barely spoken homoeroticism that seems underexplored.

Like a predatory animal caged at a zoo, Mojo's high-pressure action seems confined in the beery close quarters of Dad's Top Shelf Space (which wasn't the case with Warner's production of another high-testosterone play, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Mojo struck me as the ideal kind of play for former Actor's Express artistic director Jasson Minadakis, who specialized in taking disturbing scripts and heating them up to a fever pitch. Warner's production gets its Mojo working, but simmers without reaching a full boil.

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