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m Szentgyorgyi's lacerating adaptation of Bill Buford's 1990 nonfiction book is about the sport of soccer in the same way that Herman Melville's Moby Dick is about hunting whales. The setting and narrative are interesting on their own terms, but the Pandora's box of psychological underpinnings is what's great about the piece, making it a grippingly cerebral theatrical experience. Szentgyorgyi's marvelous script offers fascinating explorations into themes of mob-induced mayhem, group dynamics, macho aggressiveness gone amok, and that ultimately inexplicable moment when an ostensibly compassionate human snaps and turns into a vicious barbarian. In the 1980s in Europe, a phenomenon sprang up and proliferated in which groups of athletes known as "sports hooligans" engaged in acts of horrendous violence during and after their soccer matches. The key difference between this bizarre trend and modern-day gang warfare was the randomness of many of the attacks. Pointing to no motives like drug battles or turf skirmishes, the violence seemed chillingly to exist for its own sake. Buford, an inquisitive journalist who wanted some insight into this baffling phenomenon, sought out a soccer team and courageously accompanied it during work and play. It became a soul-searching journey for him when he was shocked to find himself getting a sense of the group's euphoric high at the sounds of bones crunching and the stomach-churning sight of the pummeling of helpless victims. This true story is more disturbing than even the grisliest Hollywood thriller, all the more amazing as almost no bloodshed is shown and the beatings are staged so as to leave most of the horror to our imaginations. Director Steve Pickering brings the harrowing story to life in a riveting two hours of crackling theatricality, a breathtaking foray into seldom-explored dramatic material. The overwhelming power of a stageful of determined men chanting, drinking, singing, dancing around, shouting, prancing, and stomping in near-unison provides an electric ambience. The play segues from brief scenes and intriguing narration by the character of Buford (finely portrayed by William Dennis Hurley) to nearly ritualistic passages, in which the cronies go through their carefully choreographed paces. The ensemble is nothing short of perfection, spot-on in its British dialects and fully convincing in depicting individual traits and a strong group presence. The production design serves the play well, supporting its starkly compelling atmosphere without the need for distracting bells and whistles. Those who grumble that some local theatre is too talky or statically staged should find this exciting and daring production a welcome shot in the arm. "Among the Thugs," presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 & 7 p.m. Sep. 20-Nov. 16. $20.50-25. (310) 477-205

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