How to tell the story of a movement, a mob, a collective, without generalizing or condescending?
Bill Buford's riveting 1990 book "Among the Thugs," about his rowdy times running with atavistic English soccer fans, alternates gonzo-journalistic first-person accounts of mayhem with circumspect ruminations on crowd consciousness, class politics and the meaning of violence.
"With numbers there are no laws," Buford concludes early on, rationalizing the unique power, and powerful appeal, of the hooliganism he documented from within.
With numbers as low as 10, though, how lawless can you get? That's the size of the cast for Tom Szentgyorgyi's stage adaptation of Buford's book, in an L.A. premiere following a hit run in Chicago. In director Steve Pickering's smart, speedy, visceral staging, 10 versatile actors plentifully populate the Dantean journey of Bill (William Dennis Hurley) into ever-deeper circles of the "football supporter" subculture.
An American Anglophile living abroad, Bill is first bewildered by this brutal, antisocial phenomenon -- this is not the England of Madame George and roses, as Sinead O'Connor once put it -- and then deeply fascinated by it.
In narration that is seamlessly integrated with the action and rendered with thoughtful urgency by Hurley, Bill tries hard to understand why otherwise well-adjusted "lads" spend every Saturday in a tribal ritual of sport, drink and random destruction.
Pickering has an ideal cast, romping and ranging on his own stark, raked set, to assay a quick-change range of classes and types. Apart from Hurley's frank, affecting narrator, a disheveled, bibulous Kevin Kearns makes a memorably comic subject, and Darren Law cuts a striking, anomalous figure as a black godfather.
One of Buford's chapters, staged here with ironic didacticism, challenges our denial that such a mob could ever be us. And the evening's chilling, fascistic finale -- a stomping chant to one word, "United" -- mirrors the dark side of group identity in us all.
*'Among the Thugs'
Where: Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.
When: Wednesdays- Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays 7 p.m. (Oct. 12 and 26 and Nov. 9, 3 p.m. only).
Ends: Nov. 16
Contact: (310) 477-2055
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes