“There’s nothing like having your dad cut in two to clear the brain,” says Baby (Tom Hollander) late in “Mojo,” in a line that immediately introduces 26 -year-old writer Jez Butterworth as the Quentin Tarantino of the British stage. Add in an all-male, rock ‘n’ roll-drenched world made up in equal measure of revelry and the reprehensible, and the connection is complete.
Butterworth is a new dramatist who can find poetry in the most horrifying of misdeeds: You laugh even as you cringe, all th ewhile savoring a torrent of language that won’t let up.
“Mojo” marks an exceptionally vibrant debut, and it’s absolutely the right play for artistic director Stephen Daldry’s Royal Cort, which more than ever is about drawing back to the theater a generation of audiences whose cultural allegiances are likely to be elsewhere. Is “Mojo” a great play? No, but that’s not to say Butterworth may not write one, and soon. For the moment, he’s a talent to watch whose play sets off all sorts of reverberations even if it doesn’t, in the final analysis, have its own lingering resonance.
The play takes place in 1958 Soho in London, but its specific lingo cannot be placed, since Butterworth writes in an invented patois — “Ezra’s still on the poochy stool.” In a Dean Street club called the Atlantic, a fight for control is being waged around teenage rock ‘n’ roller Silver Johnny (Hans Matheson), whose deafening display of lung power opens the play. Silver Johnny soon departs, and those in his grip take centerstage — Baby, Jewish son of the Atlantic’s now-dead club owner Ezra, and Mickey (David Westhead), his father’s sidekick-turned-usurper.
Employees along for the ride include the hapless Skinny (Aidan Gillen), who dreams of working someplace “proper” like a bank, as well as Potts (Andy Serkis) and Sweets (Matt Bardock), a two-man team of vaudevilleans who turn music-industry lowlife into a high-wire comedy routine.
The play encompasses various betrayals, humiliations and treacheries before arriving at its brutal end: In this milieu, blood ties lead only to bloodshed, with a “Be Bop a Lula” along the way.
Director Ian Rickson does a good job clearing underbrush from a dense, sometimes overwritten, play that takes a long time coming into focus.
He’s helped by actors who play Butterworth’s linguistic riffs as if they were a more ornate Mamet on amphetamines. Among the cast of six, the only disappointment is Hollander’s swaggering Baby, this actor’s third consecutive evildoer following “The Threepenny Opera” and the Court’s “Editing Process.” While the others jump gleefully into their parts — special praise to Bardock’s befuddled Sweets — Hollander seems to be playacting, down to the last pelvic thrust.
But perhaps no actor’s strut could compete with the swagger of a first-time playwright whose cocky debut could be evidence of a killer career to come.