Looking fragile in a wheelchair, but still every inch the indomitable spirit of La MaMa ETC, Ellen Stewart promises the aud at this rare revival of Sam Shepard’s rock ‘n’ roll slam-down, “The Tooth of Crime,” that the show is being performed “exactly, exactly, exactly” as when it preemed at La MaMa in 1983. Well, not … exactly. Two original cast members are back, along with helmer George Ferencz and some of the production creatives. But the show itself feels caught in a time warp, faithful to the ideas and theatrical style — but not the driving energy — that made it such a galvanic experience way back when.
By right, this notice should be written in two adjacent columns. The one on the left would be for anyone who saw the original show at La MaMa — or its 1982 precursor at Syracuse Stage, or even the original, original show, before it was musicalized, done as a play at the Performing Garage in 1972 — and wants to relive the experience of being young and full of themselves. A sense of urgency needs to be communicated to this oldtimer aud, since Shepard intends to withdraw permission to perform this piece after its formal run ends at La MaMa on Oct. 22. Any future productions would be limited to the scribe’s 1996 revision, called “Tooth of Crime (Second Dance)” and retooled with new music by T Bone Burnett.
The notice on the right would be addressed to those readers who actually are young and full of themselves and want to see that brash self-confidence reflected back at them.
Strange to say, the young are probably a better audience for this historic revival — the playwright’s gift to La MaMa on the occasion of its 45th anniversary. Despite obvious changes in performance styles and musical tastes over the past two decades, this duel to the death between an old-time rocker and a youthful contender to his throne hinges on the eternal father/son conflict in which youth inevitably wins out. Shepard’s genius was to recast this ancient struggle in a contemporary idiom of sex-drugs-rock ‘n’ roll and every other cultural signifier that was current at the time.
Hoss (Ray Wise, in an emotional reprise of his original perf in the role) is the old rocker, still smokin’ in his leather duds and still on top of the game. This “game,” by the way, is a competition of such sweeping cultural scope that the players must not only prove their prowess as musicians but also as fighters, poets, gangsters, gunslingers, dopesters, fashion plates, racing car drivers and studs.
Like a lot of stars, Hoss still thinks of himself as the rebel he was when he first got into the game. But he’s part of the establishment now. As much as he talks about being bored with fame and weary of success, he still listens to his managers, plays by the rules and observes a strict code of honor. (“Without a code, it’s just crime,” he says.)
The real rebel is Crow, a menacing figure in a black suit who follows no code and has no honor. In Nick Denning’s harrowing perf, it’s easy to believe that this gypsy raider also has no soul.
Although time has robbed Shepard’s songs of their musical jolt and his lyrics of their shock value, the essence of the duel is still clear. You can root either for the old guy with musical soul or for the kid who is all style and no heart — but you already know how this is going to turn out. The problem with the production is that all the players seem to know it, too. Which pretty much takes all the energy out of this supposedly savage duel.
Wise may be 20 years older than when he originally played Hoss, but he could still give that whippersnapper Crow a better run for the money if Hoss had more belief in himself. Unfortunately, he starts off too low to the ground, looking beaten before he even hits the track. The same applies to the supporting players, including that trouper Raul Aranas, back in his original role of Doc the dope dealer. These people have already looked into the future and they know it’s not Memphis blues but rap.
But as Shepard originally saw the father/son duel, when that mean old big-hearted Hoss goes down, something dies — in the music, in the culture and in Crow’s life, too. That’s the real tension in the piece, and in his ambivalence about the whole father/son relationship, Shepard gave Hoss enough driving energy to make the game a true contest.
So don’t blame time for making this landmark show a downer.