Let's face facts: Americans love Cockney gangsters. In cinema, the U.S. imports heaps of British crime thrillers, such as Snatch, Sexy Beast, The Limey, Croupier and The Bank Job. We love their snarling grins, their onslaught of weird slang and filthy words. We envy their patchwork hipster fashion and guyish slouches. We marvel at their hackneyed schemes, which always get muddled by stupid mistakes and crossed wires. We forgive their casual racism, their chain-smoking and perpetual boozing.
And who makes graphic violence more fun than a North London thug? Shootings? Stabbings? Mauling by man or beast? Nobody does it better.
Mojo, by Jez Butterworth, produced here by the Pittsburgh Playhouse Repertory Company, is the ultimate Cockney gangster drama. Like any Guy Ritchie film, Mojo stars a cast of irredeemable London toughs with funny names: Sweets, Potts, Baby, Skinny and Mickey. They operate a trashy dance-club, and they spend most of their time arguing. But of course they argue, since most of them are addicted to diet pills, and they're all competing for ownership of the bar. These are the working-class Brits of 1958 -- witty, tweaky, loudmouthed. At this particular sausage-fest, rockabilly songs feature prominently.
By traditional measure, Mojo is uneven and exploitative. Once you, too, have seen trashcans full of body-parts and a man shot through the face, you'll likely agree. But this is quite beside the point: Mojo is a gritty festival of wit, a naughty Soho noir about men stealing and other men getting even. Mojo is a solid bad-boy drama and a great summer escape for people who love frequent and creative uses of the word "fuck." Gay jokes? Check. Gagged man chained to rafter? Double-check.
The REP's production of Mojo has no weak link, which is typical of this no-frills professional company. But in a cast of five sick, slimy characters, Dave Droxler stands out as Baby, the one full-blown sociopath. Explaining his role in this labyrinthine story would ruin its many surprises, but Baby becomes the play's most riveting personality. As directed by Kim Martin, Baby is a loose cannon, a quick, sallow-eyed monster who can make any pleasantry sound terrifying. Droxler's twitchy portrayal is so unnerving that it's almost a let-down when Baby is promoted from supporting role to protagonist.
In the end, Butterworth's play is a shallow excursion. These men are too cowardly to learn from their mistakes, and good riddance. But wif a name wike Mojo, what was we expectin'? Bleedin' Shakespeare?
Mojo continues through June 14. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-261-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.