The British love nothing more than slumming. It makes them feel like good missionaries. The dark allure of “the other side,” the supposed glamour of the seedy underbelly of London low life, or the peculiar morals and manners of the working classes, have always been of prurient interest to the virtuous bourgeoisie of England.
Give a nice, well-educated lad like Martin Amis a whiff of the sewers, and he’s in heaven. Give the average middle-class theatergoer a dose of the socialist dramas of Bertolt Brecht, and he couldn’t be happier, either. Mother Courage reminds the privileged Englishman, apparently, of his nanny. Brecht is his fearsome prep school headmaster. Brecht gives British theatergoers cold showers and beatings and tells them to shape up.
Conscience doth make voyeurs of us all. The success of Mike Leigh’s sordid Goose-Pimples -or “dazzlingly sordid,” depending on your point of view-is a case in point. The renowned film director and auteur is a morose misery whose social conscience strikes me as patronizing. His critically acclaimed Goose-Pimples , well produced by the New Group at the Judith Anderson Theater (it transfers to the Intar Theater on Jan. 23), amounts to a pretty disgusting display of some of humanity’s more loathsome characteristics. But the solidly middle-class Mr. Leigh is within the voyeuristic tradition that righteously condescends to its own working class-and all in the name of conscience and comedy!
Jez Butterworth’s Mametian celebration of brutality and foulness, Mojo , is another successful example of the genre. The production of the heralded British play by the Atlantic Theater Company must end its extended run in Chelsea on Jan. 17, but a commercial run is very unlikely. Mojo is a comedy in the sense that Jacobean blood baths are amusing. The subject of the award-winning drama by the 28-year-old Cambridge-educated Mr. Butterworth is the amoral low life of London’s Soho in the late 50′s.
Its squalid underworld brutality and menace have been compared-almost inevitably-to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction . If so, Mojo is showboating style over slender, trendy content. But for long stretches I couldn’t actually understand what was going on. I couldn’t understand the language . I can speak working-class Cockney. But whereas everyone else in the audience could understand it-judging by their happy response-the loud, garbled Cockney of the Soho spivs and dim-witted psychotics on stage left me as nonplused as Mike Leigh’s non-English-speaking Saudi in Goose-Pimples .
The common language that divides only me, it seems, reminded me of the time Ian McKellen was virtually incomprehensible as Richard III. His strangulated upper-class accent made it difficult to understand him at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Opera House, which swallows sound, anyway. “Can you understand what’s going on?” I asked a group of New Yorkers at intermission. “Not a word!” came the sunny response. They were good sports and recommended supertitles, as at Italian opera. But at the curtain, they were all on their feet, cheering wildly. “Bravo! Bravo! Best Shakespeare I ever saw!”
Mojo made theater history in England. It was the first play by a first-time writer to have its premiere on the main stage of the Royal Court Theater since John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956. It is, therefore, presumed to be as revolutionary as the Osborne-though the angry, blistering voice of Look Back was wholly new, and Mr. Butterworth’s voice isn’t. His influences clearly echo Harold Pinter (there’s the same obscurantism) and David Mamet. There’s the same explosively heightened Mametspeak, the same attraction to inarticulate losers of the underworld, with a dash of sexual abuse thrown in.
David Mamet is a founder of the Atlantic Theater Company- Mojo’ s New York producers-so the admiration is mutual. But whereas the con men of Mr. Mamet’s earlier plays can be seen as an emblem of America gone wrong, Mr. Butterworth has built a house of stupid nutters signifying little or nothing. Mojo is like a cartoon, a weird game for its own weird sake, and maniacally performed. I didn’t believe a second of it, including the severed heads.
Idiocy, greed, racism and throwing up are on uncompromising display in Mike Leigh’s Goose-Pimples . The 1981 play is what used to be called “a slice of life.” Life-or reality-is the last thing I want to see on stage. After all, we get quite enough of that sort of thing at home. But Mr. Leigh is asking us: “Don’t you care ?” If, then, you don’t see the comedy in his condescension-proceed to jail.
Goose-Pimples is an unfocused one-joke play about pathetic London suburbanites, miscommunication and a confused Arab. It would make an O.K. sketch, but Mr. Leigh has spun it out shakily into a portentous statement about racist England within the theatrical tradition of a drawing room farce. The room here is deliberately tacky, a hideous monument to black and gold in the age of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” It made a promising start.
A small-time Saudi businessman-named Muhammad, naturally-mistakes a young, thick croupier, Jackie, for a hooker. (Caroline Seymour is terrific as Jackie, a dreamer.) She takes him home thinking he’s an oil sheik. Muhammad-an Arab stereotype who’s played with wonderfully discreet comic befuddlement by Adam Alexi-Malle-doesn’t speak a word of English and thinks the flat is a brothel. The flat is owned by Vernon, a loudmouthed car salesman who’s having a fling with malevolent, flighty Frankie, the wife of his pal and fellow car dealer, an ignoramus named Irving.
What a bunch! The English are portrayed exaggeratedly as deeply unpleasant, drunk and mindless bigots. (Poor Muhammad, he just wants to get laid.) England has been known to be racist, but these people are as cartoonish as Mojo’ s lowlifes. You don’t have to like the characters, of course. (How likable is Medea?) But why spend time in their absurd company?
Goose-Pimples exalts in ignorance and nastiness. It treads clumsily between condemning racism and exploiting it. It goes sneeringly for cheap laughs. (It gets them.) You sense the moves as they’re happening. (Muhammad will be humiliated.) Are we laughing at these goons, or with them?
What’s fatally missing from Goose-Pimples is the brilliant dark comedy and voice of the late Joe Orton. There was nothing he couldn’t have us in stitches of laughter about, particularly British hypocrisy. But Mr. Leigh is no Orton. Nor does he believe in working with playwrights. He famously improvises with his actors around a theme and edits the outcome himself. He believes the result is more authentically real that way. But at best what is revealed is an authentic actor’s improvisation. And at worst, the ending to this play. Goose-Pimples closes with the prolonged, irritating sound of Muhammad snoring. It must have been a fun improv in the rehearsal room, but it’s too close for comfort here.