Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Always…Patsy Cline

Northlight Theatre

By Albert Williams

Young actors yelling and throwing things at each other, a script littered with sexual and scatological humor, men struggling for territorial supremacy, bursts of cathartic violence–must be the new Steppenwolf show, right? Well, sort of. It’s the new show at Steppenwolf, to be sure–the U.S. premiere of Mojo, by novice British playwright Jez Butterworth–but there’s not a Steppenwolf ensemble member in sight. One cast member–the one with the smallest role–is the recipient of a Steppenwolf fellowship, but judging by the program bios the closest connection any of the leading players has to the Chicago troupe is appearing in Joan Allen’s new movie.

None of this would matter if Mojo stood on its own as thought-provoking theater with something meaningful or at least fresh to say. But it doesn’t. This raunchy melodrama about power struggles in the British rock scene of the late 1950s is heavy on attitude and energy but light on substance–a strutting showcase of “rock ‘n’ roll acting” (a much-overused term in any case) whose torrents of raw language and perverse, comic-ugly violence seem fabricated shock effects rather than the urgent expression of a deeply felt story and characters. A young man is hung upside down in shackles; another is tied spread-eagle and bare-ass naked over a jukebox and tortured with a cutlass (a cutlass?). The drama’s climax finds a person bleeding to death onstage after being shot in the head with a derringer–a “small gun,” as one sexually charged joke puts it, but effective nonetheless. These graphic scenes are augmented by grisly descriptions of a man cut in half and another run over by a lawn mower. Yet none of this carries any emotional or moral weight. David Mamet’s American Buffalo, David Rabe’s Streamers, and Alan Bowne’s Forty Deuce, all of which Mojo recalls if not overtly imitates, convey larger resonances through the bravado posturing and testosterone turf wars of their foolish, confused antagonists–and they burn with the emotional investment their authors placed in every one of the characters. But Mojo’s combatants seem mere contrivances to push the plot along; while the cast have plenty of fun with their roles’ oddball idiosyncrasies, the performances come off as behavioral studies for their own sake.

Set in 1958, when the burgeoning English music scene was rife with Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly wannabes, Mojo depicts the battle for control of a squalid Soho nightclub and its resident star, a pretty boy named Silver Johnny whose imitation-Elvis moves and glittering silver jacket have won a core of female fans (he “makes [their] pussy hair stand up,” one character claims) as well as the attention of two rival music impresarios–the club’s owner Ezra and the mysterious Mr. Ross, neither of whom is ever seen. Potts and Sweets, the club’s pill-popping doormen and dogsbodies, fantasize that Mr. Ross will make Silver Johnny an overseas celebrity–and that they’ll share in his fame and fortune in America, where “the cotton’s high and the livin’ is easy,” as Potts likes to say. But the dream becomes a nightmare when Johnny disappears and Ezra turns up dead–bisected with a saw and stuffed into twin trash cans, which are set center stage in one scene.

Ezra’s murder, presumably the handiwork of Mr. Ross and his thugs, leads to a showdown between two would-be successors–Ezra’s business partner, the sardonic and taciturn Mickey, and his son, an eccentric and possibly psychotic bully all too obviously named Baby who, having been sexually molested by his father as a child, in turn abuses Mickey’s protege (and perhaps boy toy), the dim-witted Skinny. Potts and Sweets gear up for a fight to the finish with the Ross gang, turning the club into a sort of alcoholic Alamo. But the real war takes place between Mickey, suddenly thrust into the role of surrogate father, and Baby, whose transformation from feckless clown prince into ruthless ruler more than a little echoes Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

Butterworth, who was 26 when he wrote this play, has a flair for raunchily rhythmic dialogue–the first scene, with the sad sacks Potts and Sweets wallowing in their dreams of wealth and women, gets the play off to a darkly hilarious start. But its promise quickly dissipates as Butterworth focuses on the struggle between Baby and Mickey, two clockwork characters whose rivalry generates some short-term interest but no larger significance. Though Mojo (whose title carries a plethora of sexual, musical, mystical, and pharmacological implications) seems to be making a point about generational change, as the youthful Baby sweeps aside the older show-biz hacks to make his own way in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, the play’s paltry payoff hardly seems worth the outrageous action and intricate scheming that lead to it. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”–that seems to be the message of Mojo, and it was a cliche when the Who wailed it 25 years ago.

A major problem with the play is that, for all its references to 50s stars, cars, drugs, and pop-song hooks, it has no real feel for the period or its music. Despite the show’s evocative opening tableau, with Silver Johnny silently and ritualistically practicing his pelvis-thrusting poses to the accompaniment of crashing guitar chords, there is almost no rock ‘n’ roll in a play that needs to be permeated with it. Even at its sleaziest level, rock isn’t just about fast bucks and quick fucks: the music exerts a power over its practitioners that bonds even the deadliest rivals, and none of that power is convincingly suggested here. Mickey and Baby’s feud feels generic–which unfortunately isn’t the same as universal.

English director Ian Rickson, who staged the work’s world premiere last year at London’s Royal Court Theatre, has skillfully guided his cast through the script’s cockney-inflected, jargon-stacked, quasi-music-hall exchanges; the comic bantering between rising local actor Martin McClendon as the hapless sap Sweets and Broadway veteran Evan Handler as the paranoid Potts is the best thing in the show. Rob Campbell, whose mashed-up face looks like his parents pushed him into a wall one too many times, has the right kind of dangerous unpredictability for the flaky but lethal Baby, though he’s a bit too old for the part; looks also help Michael Shannon and Adam Joyce effectively sketch their roles of the lurching loser Skinny and the pretty but shallow Johnny. But Irish actor Risteard Cooper lacks the needed authority to make Mickey a viable contender for the top position, so his conflict with Campbell’s Baby never grips our interest. The British designer Ultz, who created the set and costumes for Mojo’s London production as well as here, fills up Steppenwolf’s huge stage with a veritable cavern of a club, complete with a spiral staircase that provides a fitting metaphor for a situation spiraling out of control. But despite patches of sharp humor and an occasionally suspenseful noir plot, Mojo feels more like a pop fabrication than the real rock ‘n’ roll thing.

With its warmhearted portrait of a nurturing female friendship bonded by music, Always…Patsy Cline is a refreshing antidote to Mojo’s macho misanthropy. This gentle evening of song and storytelling, created by Ted Swindley from the real-life reminiscences of Louise Seger and the song hits of country star Patsy Cline, may lack the hard-hitting dramatic conflict Butterworth strives for, but it feels a whole lot more authentic and appealing. Largely a vehicle for the singer playing the title role–in Northlight Theatre’s production the superb Megon McDonough, a veteran of Chicago’s 70s folk scene as well as stage musicals such as Beehive and Pump Boys and Dinettes–the show depicts the affectionate relationship that Cline struck up with Seger, a divorced mom and die-hard Cline fan, when Cline appeared in Houston in 1961. Initially charmed by her eager admirer, Cline soon found in Seger a kindred spirit: a hardworking “country gal” to whom she could talk about kids, housework, and men (“the dogs!”). Though the two apparently met only once, they remained in close contact by correspondence–until 1963, when the 30-year-old Cline was killed in a plane crash, depriving the world of a star and Louise of a friend.

With Sarah Underwood as Louise providing the narration and McDon-ough the vocals, Always…Patsy Cline is a briskly paced but never rushed charmer under the direction of Brian Russell. McDonough delivers such country-pop classics as “Crazy,” “Sweet Dreams,” “She’s Got You,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” with easy confidence and a rich, creamy alto, phrasing every bend, slide, twang, and throaty catch with perfect pitch. Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s costumes (ranging from Patsy’s blue satin and white fringe cowgirl dress and Louise’s workshirt and jeans) and Todd Rosenthal’s set (a tacky kitchen designed in clashing shades of red and pink surrounded by a footlit walkway) suggest the gulf of aspiration that separates the two characters, while a four-man band led by pianist Luke Nelson–the Bodacious Bobcats (Joe Bob, Billy Bob…you get the idea)–brings to infectious life the musical values that brought the women together.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brosilow/James Fraher.