A Yank In Hooligan Land
                 

LOS ANGELES REVIEW by Willard Manus

Bill Buford, a transplanted American, wrote a book twenty years ago about his fascination with the British football hooligans who had become infamous for their violent shenanigans at national and international matches. Buford, who founded and edited the litmag Granta, wrote the book, AMONG THE THUGS, from the inside, as its title indicates.

Now Buford's account of his thuggish years has been turned into a stage play by Tom Szentgyorgyi, a Chicago-based playwright, who explains in a program note why he chose this material: "I knew the first time I read it...that I wanted to put the book on the stage. In part this was because, unlikely as it sounds, the theatre seemed a singularly appropriate place to tell its story. One of the principal questions Buford addresses is what it means to become part of a crowd. And what is the theatre audience but a seated and (usually) well behaved crowd?
      

     
"But the main reason I was drawn to AMONG THE THUGS was because it's the story of a quest, the quest to understand. Buford looked at people who were as different from him as people could be. At considerable risk to his own well-being, he tried to understand them. It wasn't pleasant work. Buford suffered considerably before it was done. And perhaps inevitably, he was forced to confront the limits of his understanding--and its risks."

Turning a non-fiction work into a stage play is no easy task, especially with a book like AMONG THE THUGS, whose story spills across the years and involves numerous characters and settings. Szentgyorgyi and his director, Steve Pickering, solve the problem by having the Buford character (played winningly by William Dennis Hurley) speak directly to the audience. This not only gives the story focus but allows for information to be conveyed: interior thoughts and feelings, explanations of time and place, introductions of new characters.

Direct address is combined with choreographed movement and speech on the part of the rest of the cast. Since the play is largely a study in mob psychology, the other eight characters, all of them male, repeatedly meld into a single unit as they stomp their feet and shout their team slogans, punctuating just about every other line with drunken, raucous profanity and gestures.

Buford turns and joins them in their shouting, carousing and drinking, partially to prove to these yabbos that even a bespectacled, geeky American writer can be one of the boys; mostly because, against his will, he gets caught up in the heady rush of belonging to a mob, experiencing its collective power and fury.

Buford and the audience learn some surprising things from this infiltration into the world of X-treme soccer fans. They are not disaffected, down-and-out, unemployed working-class louts living on the dole and taking out their resentment of Britain's class system on those who support rival teams. On the contrary, most of these young men have jobs, money, apartments, cars, and even education. They don't resent "the system" and don't consider themselves political rebels, except for the the fringe elements, the skinheads allied with England's neo-Nazi movement.

The "average" thug is proud of England and of belonging to a multi-ethnic group ("The Firm") which sticks up for the country in international matches by fighting foreign football fans in a highly-disciplined and -planned way. It's like being in the army, Buford learns, and when its troops reach retirement age (35 or so) they quit the wars and take up respectable and peaceable suburban lives, leaving the bloody front-line battles to the next generation of willing soldiers.

This boisterous and insightful show runs through Nov. 16 at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S, Sepulveda Blvd. in W. LA. Call (310) 477-2055 or visit odysseytheatre.com