Steven Berkoff's 1983 tale of adrenaline, lust, rage, and violence amongst a group of young thugs in 1960s London is written in modified metrical verse, which makes for a text whose heightened sense of reality is both unusually challenging and piercingly dramatic. The juxtaposition of these low born, brawling goons, and the lyrical dialogue that comes out of their mouths makes for a beautifully ironic tale - the play hints that the great Shakespearean epics of old are really tales of goons and criminals. Young thug Mike (Brad Schmidt) leads a gang of East End thugs whose dapper, shiny suits bely the fact that they're engaged in a bitter and bloody feud with a rival gang out of Brixton. The battles usually consist of the gangs getting drunk and beating each other up on their way home from their pubs. In an attempt to make peace, Mike and the other gang's chief thug (Joshua Schell) agree to a one on one duel against each other, with the loser's gang surrendering. As the night of the fight approaches, Mike suffers self doubts, both over his ability and his willingness to fight. Berkoff's beautiful, vivid writing is also dense and quite hard to penetrate. Yet with this startlingly crisp and at times acrobatic staging, director Bruce Cooper leaps over the play's hurdles of incomprehensibility and crafts a clear and emotionally searing production. The piece is perfectly cast: The young men have pitch perfect East End accents and dead eyes; you'll swear you're watching Kray-era thugs, who, along with knowing how to throw a good punch, somehow manage to get their jaws around the mouth-mangling verse. Nicely volatile turns are offered by Schmidt's brooding Mike, Kate Roxburgh as his miserable doormat of a mother, and Annie Burgstede, offering a delicately Julie Christie-like performance as Mike's sexy but neglected girlfriend. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Avenue, Venice; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Feb. 6. (310) 823-0710. Presented by Hellion Pictures.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: Jan. 15. Continues through Feb. 6, 2010