Sam Shepard is the closest the American theater has ever had to a rock-star playwright - not so much in terms of his fame, which has more to do with his film acting than his Pulitzer Prize, as in terms of his subjects and style. In the 1970s, his plays blurred the lines between theater and music in fresh and invigorating ways. Long before hip-hop, Shepard was sampling gangster chic and outlaw individualism, linking both to the dog-eat-dog logic of U.S. capitalism.
But most pop music has a short shelf life, and despite the persistence of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, the phrase "old rock star" still sounds like an oxymoron. That's one of the themes of Shepard's 1972 play, "The Tooth of Crime," and it's ironically driven home by a wobbly, overreverent revival at LaMama in which director George Ferencz seeks to re-create the frisson of his 1983 production, which was reportedly definitive.
No such luck.
Shepard's play conjures a richly allusive universe somewhere between comic book and film noir. Rock stars are cutthroat killers or race-car drivers, and the "charts" seem to follow both record sales and criminal pursuits. With a crack five-piece rock band beneath the platform stage and behind glass, playing songs penned by Shepard himself, "The Tooth of Crime" is meant to come off as something like a rock-concert-with-Olympic-competition.
Dark-eyed Ray Wise returns as lead gunslinger Hoss, who's struggling to hold onto his West Coast turf in the midst of what he calls "a doubt dose" about the whole criminal enterprise. He worries out loud to his main squeeze (Jenne Vath) and his driver (Cary Gant), and seeks counsel from a swishy astrologer (John Andrew Morrison), a drug-dispensing doctor (Raul Aranas, also returning from the original cast) and a smooth-talking, sweatsuited soothsayer (onetime Shepard regular Gideon Charles Davis).
But a tentative weariness has crept into the old moves. Wise still has a riveting stare and a luxurious ease with some of Shepard's more lyrical language. But at some point in the past 23 years, he passed the age when the average man should quit wearing leather pants and howling the blues.
Neither Wise nor leading lady Vath can sing on pitch. When Hoss' much-feared young nemesis finally turns up, he takes the singularly unthreatening form of Nick Denning, who dresses in a New Wave zipper jacket and sings in a yelping imitation of the B-52s' Fred Schneider. The show's only felicitous musical moment comes nearly at the end, with the four-part, Moonglows-style harmony of "Slips Away," led by the silky-voiced Gant.
As the opener of LaMama's 45th anniversary season, the "Tooth" revival is meant to commemorate a high point in the history of this East Village experimental mainstay. As Hoss might be the first to point out, however, the cutting edge is no place to rest.
THE TOOTH OF CRIME.
By Sam Shepard. Directed by George Ferencz. Through Oct. 22 at LaMama, 66 E. Fourth St., Manhattan. Tickets $40. Call 212-475-7710. Seen Tuesday.