No one who saw British playwright Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem’’ on Broadway this year is likely to ever forget it.
Mark Rylance won a much-deserved Tony Award for his epic performance as a larger-than-life lord of misrule named Johnny “Rooster’’ Byron, but “Jerusalem’’ was unfairly denied the Tony for best play. Instead, the nod went to “War Horse,’’ an ingenious spectacle that was saddled - sorry - with a pedestrian script.
Back in the mid-1990s, a different set of voters, judging a different Butterworth play, got it right: They honored the writer with the Olivier Award (the British equivalent of a Tony Award) for “Mojo,’’’ a raw, potent, and adrenaline-fueled slice of low life that immerses audiences in the dark underside of the oft-romanticized early days of rock ’n’ roll.
Now at Charlestown Working Theater in a well-acted production by Theatre on Fire, under the direction of Darren Evans, “Mojo’’ delivers the visceral impact of a sock in the jaw. Like “Jerusalem,’’ it is alternately funny and chilling, loaded with mouthfuls of meaty and distinctive dialogue, and marked by abrupt shifts in the balance of power, along with equally sudden eruptions of violence.
The time is 1958, the place is London’s Soho district, and the scheming, backstabbing employees of a nightclub called Ezra’s Atlantic are suddenly confronted with two big problems.
Ezra, the club’s owner, has been murdered in the kind of exceptionally grisly fashion that seems designed to send a message. Meanwhile, the club’s main attraction, a swivel-hipped 17-year-old rock singer named Silver Johnny, whose performances induce a Presley-like frenzy in teenage girls, has disappeared. This is very bad news for Potts and Sweets, two low-ranking bar hands who had been concocting a plan to cash in on Silver Johnny’s popularity themselves.
There is every reason to believe that the murder of Ezra and the disappearance of Silver Johnny are connected, given that a certain gangster and would-be music manager has had his eye on the young singer for some time. There might also be reason for Potts, Sweets, and the others to fear they could meet Ezra’s fate.
Flee or fight? That is roughly the question they wrestle with as they try to get to the bottom of the double mystery - an effort punctuated by infighting, intrigue, and intimidation. Evans shows a sure grasp of Butterworth’s grim humor - a single word such as “menswear’’ draws a laugh; a character responds to a life-threatening crisis with “Warm milk. I need some warm milk’’ - and of the playwright’s knack for the jolting surprise, as when the lights come up on a scene to reveal a man tied to a jukebox and menaced by a shirtless tormentor brandishing a cutlass.
The director draws strong, committed performances from his fine cast of six. As Baby, Ezra’s psychopathic son, Adam Siladi generates tension whenever he enters the room, eyes glittering, a half smile on his face. Brian Bernhard, a sophomore at Suffolk University who somewhat resembles a young Tom Waits, is superb as the jumpy, pill-popping Potts. As his sidekick, Sweets, Keith Michael Pinault is a portrait in twitchy neurosis, kind of a cockney Costanza.
Also turning in laudable performances are Greg Maraio, as the hapless Skinny, a guy who has “victim’’ written all over him, and Gerard Slattery as Mickey, the bellowing man in charge after Ezra’s death. Andres Rey Solorzano has very few lines as Silver Johnny, but he meets the role’s significant physical challenge with admirable discipline.
Butterworth has long acknowledged his debt to Harold Pinter - he even cast Pinter in the 1997 film version of “Mojo’’ that he wrote and directed - and there’s no mistaking the influence of the master in the undercurrents of menace that bubble beneath every seemingly commonplace exchange. There are traces, too, of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo’’ and “Glengarry Glen Ross’’ in this rogue’s gallery of amoral, double-crossing dirtballs.
But Butterworth has a singular voice and dark vision of his own. Be forewarned: “Mojo’’ includes copious helpings of British slang that can be a challenge to decipher. Theatre on Fire has gone so far as to include in the playbill translations of more than two dozen phrases heard in the play.
“Mojo’’ is absolutely worth the effort, though. As just one piece of evidence, consider this savory soliloquy from Potts, when he and Sweets are confident they can ride Silver Johnny’s coattails to riches, before their long day’s journey into night begins: “Go down take a look at any picture of Napoleon. Go take a butcher’s [a look] at the Emperor Half the World. And you’ll see it. You’ll see. They got a lot of blokes standing around. Doers. Finders. Advisers. Acquaintances. Watchers. An entourage. . . . Napoleon’s chums. And they’re all there. Sticking around. Having a natter. Cleaning rifles. Chatting to cherubs. Waiting. Waiting for the deal to come off.’’