Sam Shepard once declared that he didn't want to be a playwright, he wanted to be a rock and roll star. So the current rock and roll revival of his 1972 play, The Tooth of Crime, would seem to be a perfect match for his ambitions.
The play is loosely structured as a Greek tragedy (with unity of time and place and a doomed protagonist) to tell the story of Hoss (Ray Wise), a fading senior rock star defending his place on the charts from Crow (Nick Denning), a ruthless young challenger. The first half of the play finds Hoss paranoid and insecure as reports filter in that Crow is on the move toward Hoss's celebrity compound to confront him in a bizarre rock and roll duel.
Fortunately for Hoss (and the audience) he is not without a colorful entourage to keep him company as he battles obsolescence. Becky Lou (Jenne Vath), his main squeeze, is a bleach-blonde strategist with a funny baritone voice and unstoppable moxie. Ray Aranas plays Doc, the star's drug mule, who slinks in and out with sly menace. Most enjoyable is Galactic Jack, a stereotypical 70's DJ consulted by Hoss to analyze his position in the charts, here played with hilarious abandon by Charles Gideon Davis. Special mention must also be made of Arthur Adair, the scene-stealing referee in roller-skates who conducts the show's climactic rock duel.
The set, designed by Bill Stable, makes full use of the sheer supernatural volume of space in LaMaMa's massive (by Manhattan standards) space. The playing area looms a world away from the audience, across a dark gulf of space and high on a lofty plane that further emphasizes the work's epic scope. In the shadows far beneath the stage, a live rock band pounds out Sam Shepard's score like a blues train thundering to Hell.
Unfortunately, despite the play's throbbing rock engine and some engaging performances, The Tooth of Crime sags drearily under the weight of Shepard's own bewildering text. His characters communicate in a mostly incomprehensible argot; their world is a sort of alternate-dimension music industry, which resembles ours in its brutality and glorification of hot-rods, youth and bling-lust. Shepard's infatuation with this stylized, hermetic lingo bars any real empathy or even engagement in Hoss's tragic struggle.
It could be that Shepard's intent is not to evoke empathy but to whisk us away on a magic carpet ride of incantatory poetry and solid rock. But two hours and ten minutes is a long time to spend alienated and lost in this impenetrable idiom. And Hoss's constant carping about the good old days of rock gets tedious fast. Crow, his adversary, doesn't help matters when he appears in Act II and spends much of his stage time crouched like a gargoyle and spitting out his cryptic lines in a high-pitched demonic growl. Rock and roll may never die, but in Shepard's world I sometimes wished it would.
(The Tooth of Crime is a revival of the acclaimed 1983 rock and roll production in celebration of LaMaMa's 45th anniversary. Shepard, who has since revised the play with a new score by T Bone Burnett, granted LaMaMa special permission to revive this version, which will not be staged again. The Tooth of Crime runs through October 22; tickets may be bought online here.)