In a 1971 interview, Sam Shepard famously remarked, "I don't want to be a playwright, I want to be a rock 'n' roll star." Without a doubt, The Tooth of Crime is the play where he most actively pursues that goal. This "play with music in two acts" deliriously conflates and contorts two seemingly different career paths: that of rock 'n' roll musician and that of mobster. The story follows Hoss (Ray Wise), a mob boss and rock superstar whose career has reached its pinnacle. Bored by his success and worried about the small-time competition nipping at his heels, he wants to go on a "kill" (we later learn that this means to musically one-up someone) and seeks the advice of a seer named Starman (John-Andrew Morrison), who, along with his manager/lover/confidant Becky Lou (Jenna Vath), convinces Hoss to wait in his austere mansion to avoid making a mistake.
Unsatisfied, Hoss seeks the help of Galactic Jack (Charles Gideon Davis), a fast-talking D.J. who scientifically keeps track of who is on top of "the game" for mobster/musicians. Jack informs Hoss that he is the top rocker/killer around, but that there is a minor threat to his reign. Hoss jumps on the assertion that anyone could challenge him and begins to worry about the so-called "Gypsy killer." Finally, Hoss calls in his old partner in crime, Cheyenne (Cary Gant), to convince him to take their show back on the road after many years. After a tranquilizer from Doc (Raul Aranas) calms him, Cheyenne informs Hoss that a Gypsy killer by the name of Crow (Nick Denning) is gunning for his place.
The Tooth of Crime is not one of Shepard's best works. It spends far too long demonstrating Hoss's incapacity for action, and the entire first act consists of his repeatedly saying the same thing (I'm old, and my time at the top is nearly over) to an ever-revolving cast of characters who all try to quiet his fears, one after the other.
That said, La MaMa's revival does a wonderful job adding as much as possible to the starkly Greek-like text through excellent acting. Its efforts pay off, especially in the much more exciting second act, where Hoss battles Crow for control of his empire. The best part of the play comes halfway through the second act, where Hoss and Crow have a musical sound-off, much in the style of hip-hop competitions where each competitor takes turns verbally flaying his opponent.
Ray Wise adeptly plays the elder statesman whose time has come. In his ranting is the quiet resignation of someone who has been defeated by his own weariness. Jenne Vath is stellar as Becky Lou, especially late in the second act, where she performs a kind of theatrical exorcism of past demons. Nick Denning, as Crow, looks the part but seems a bit too geeky for an up-and-coming rock star.
The exceptional stage design by Bill Stabile features a large and slanting glass enclosure in which the band sits. The play itself is performed on top of the structure. The musicians are barely visible through tinted glass but can be fully heard as they play the original score written by Shepard himself, instead of the subsequent score written by T Bone Burnett, which Shepard generally prefers.
Despite a slow start, The Tooth of Crime rocks out, especially in the second act when the pace picks up considerably. For anyone who wants to be a rock 'n' roll star, it's a good place to pick up a few pointers.