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This is a private and urgent message for the young and famous of the 21st century — rock stars, movie stars, fashion stars: Sam Shepard knows your m.o., dudes. He knows where you’re headed. He knows what you’ll be like when time is no longer on your side. And you want to hear the really scary part? He knew all this before you were even born.
It is both gratifying and a little frightening when a play you had consigned to the crypt returns as a living prophecy for our times. La MaMa E.T.C.’s highly entertaining new revival of “The Tooth of Crime” — Mr. Shepard’s musical comic-book melodrama from 1972 about celebrity, mortality and good old rock ’n’ roll, set in a sci-fi gangland — may not be the slickest show around. But as directed by George Ferencz, in a restaging of his 1983 concert-style production for La MaMa, this “Tooth” achieves something far more important than professional perfection.
In bringing demystifying clarity to a work often dismissed as a smoky head trip, this interpretation makes a compelling case for “The Tooth of Crime” as one of Mr. Shepard’s best plays (that includes classics like “Buried Child” and “True West”), and perhaps the best American drama on the cancerous nature of fame.
To tell the truth, I was expecting this to be an auld lang syne sort of occasion: a chance for superannuated hipsters to remember when downtown theater was really happening. Part of the 45th-anniversary season of La MaMa, the venerable experimental theater showcase founded by Ellen Stewart in 1961, Mr. Ferencz’s production features much of the same team he used in 1983, including its star (Ray Wise), set and costume designers (Bill Stabile and Sally Lesser) and music director (Bob Jewett).
Plays and people are known to soften after two decades. And “The Tooth of Crime” demands ferocious energy, centering as it does on a hard-fought, futurist-gladiator showdown between an established rock god (Mr. Wise) and the fierce young punk who wants his turf (the astonishing Nick Denning).
Mr. Shepard had officially disowned the script, having created an alternative version called “The Tooth of Crime (Second Dance),” staged (unmemorably) Off Broadway in 1996 in a production that jettisoned many of the period cultural references and substituted a new score (by T Bone Burnett) for Mr. Shepard’s original songs. Ms. Stewart had to get special permission from Mr. Shepard to use the older text and music.
But every factor that would seem to be dragging “Tooth” into the shadows of nostalgia instead gives it a new vibrancy. The sense of years having passed, most evident in the face and body of the undeniably middle-aged Mr. Wise, only makes the central conflict more affecting.
Mr. Shepard was only 28 when he wrote “The Tooth of Crime.” But though mainstream glory (not to mention movie stardom) lay ahead, he already had a sharp and harrowing sense of how success blurs the borders of identity and how image can devour creativity.
Those are the issues that descend like night sweats upon Hoss (Mr. Wise, known to television audiences for “24”), a warlord rock star who lives in sybaritic insulation in his mansion, surrounded by flunkies and stoked by drugs. First seen, seated and immobile, in sunglasses, a fedora and a tightly wrapped leather trench coat, this Hoss eerily brings to mind recent images of the music mogul Phil Spector after his arrest in the shooting of an actress at his home. This guy has heard the chimes at midnight, all right; that is, when he’s clear-headed enough to hear.
In delivering songs, dialogue and monologues — in which language is a fusion of gangster, jive, rock and cowboy jargon that creates a complete portrait of a self-contained world — Mr. Wise has the dull gloss and weariness of a fading lounge act playing Caesars Palace at 2 a.m. This interpretation is less combustible, less testosterone-driven than usual, but it makes a ringing counterpoint to Hoss’s nemesis, a rising maverick rocker named Crow (Mr. Denning), who arrives at the end of the first act.
If Hoss is played older than is customary, Crow registers as more abrasively young than ever. Mr. Denning, a recent graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse, turns Crow into a hyped-up hybrid of a Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie and the bot-boys from Devo. (The script describes Crow as looking like Keith Richards, but never mind; different strokes for different productions.) His movement and speech, a “Clockwork Orange”-style argot, somehow register as both feral and computer-programmed.
It’s the perfect persona for an artist who understands that image, built of fragments of appropriated styles, is everything. And the climactic face-off with Hoss — a showdown of sung and spoken poetic riffs — manages to cover the history of rock ’n’ roll, starting from Southern slave chants to heavy metal. “The Tooth of Crime” presents that history as a progressive devaluation, from soul to soullessness.
Narrative clarity is at a happy premium here. The look of the show is stark black and white, accented by blood red, with a wall of erratically employed microphones at the edge of the stage. And the supporting cast members — who include Jenne Vath as Hoss’s groupie-cum-manager and Raul Aranas (recreating his role of 23 years ago) as the resident pharmaceutically addled physician — are clearly having a ball, camping in ways that never distort meaning.
Mr. Shepard wound up not thinking much of his music for “Tooth.” It’s true that the songs sometimes feel slack and generic. But as performed by a five-member band (seen through a transparent wall beneath the raised stage), they are appropriately infused with a film-noir tension. More important, they let the characters make of the songs what they need to. And a “Four Tops”-style meditation on the mutability of identity, led by Cary Gant, becomes a disarmingly lovely elegy for Hoss.
“I’m pulled and pushed around from one image to another,” Hoss says near the play’s end. “Nothin’ takes a solid form. Nothin’ sure and final. Where do I stand!” Well, that’s Hoss’s problem.
At the end Crow stands tall in the knowledge that his image is triumphant. Maybe. Even as Mr. Denning sings with satanic verve about having cheated fate, there is just enough of an edge of uncertainty to suggest that Crow has glimpsed his own future in the hollowed-out man he has just defeated.