Sterling Theatre

at Cabaret Metro

The Tooth of Crime should be considered one of Sam Shepard’s problem plays. Completed in 1972, this wildly imaginative rock-and-roll fantasy is so full of hip references and insider lingo that it can seem nearly impenetrable. Just trying to figure out that the line “Lush in sun time gotta smell of lettuce or turn of the century. Sure, Leathers, squeeze on the grape vine one time” translates into “Yes, I’d like a glass of wine” demands more energy than most people are willing to expend. Yet Shepard’s remarkable skill at wielding this language gives the play much of its dramatic power as well as its sense of humor. It’s as if he were playing his typewriter like Jimi Hendrix played his guitar; it may not be the most subtle thing you’ve ever heard, but it demands attention.

Sterling Theatre has expended a lot of energy exploring this script and has delivered a production that is not only remarkably lucid but also deeply felt. The Tooth of Crime is something of a two-hour extended metaphor, in which the rock-and-roll industry is likened to organized crime, where superstars and aspiring talents use strategic kills to achieve or maintain success. The play follows the pathetically paranoid fading star Hoss (Rick Reardon), holed up on his leather and leopard-skin throne as he awaits the impending attack of Crow (James Schneider), a hot young performer whose thirst for stardom is unquenchable. Hoss desperately tries to gain confidence from his “entourage”: Becky Lou (Jane Baxter Miller), his detached but savvy girlfriend; Starman (Duane Sharp), a wigged-out astrological adviser; Galactic Jack (Frank Nall), a slick disc jockey; Doc (Michele Filpi), his drug supplier; and Cheyenne (Will Casey), his no-nonsense chauffeur. With the exception of Cheyenne, all of Hoss’s cronies act like toadies.

This incestuous little crowd is as funny as it is sad. Hoss longs for the old days when he was a true street warrior, but that past turns out to be as much a sham as his current image–his triumphant moment was beating up some preppies in the parking lot at Bob’s Big Boy, an act he calls part of a class war. Hoss has tried all his life to persuade himself that he’s an idealized version of himself, and his downfall comes about because he can’t believe his own lie anymore.

Reardon expertly captures this volatile aspect of Hoss’s character. It took Reardon the better part of the first act to warm up on opening night, but once he did he was wholly engrossing. He handles Shepard’s wickedly difficult monologues with great skill, carefully balancing the poetry of the language and the underlying raw emotions. Reardon trusts Shepard’s language and personalizes the many bizarre and seemingly senseless rapid-fire character changes Hoss goes through. Not every choice Reardon makes works–how could it given the difficulty of the material?–but it’s gratifying to watch a performer work to stay within Shepard’s tight stylistic constraints.

Once Crow appears, Hoss’s days are clearly numbered. Hoss knows his image is perhaps more important than his talent, but Crow’s image is his talent. He is all put-on and even begins the second act by stalking the stage, viciously chewing a stick of gum, trying to mimic Hoss’s mannerisms. Schneider’s Crow has a comic intensity that’s perfect for the character–he is at once ominous and ridiculous. Yet in his encounter with Hoss he seems curiously nervous and scared. Certainly Crow is nervous in this duel to the death, but not hiding that fear from Hoss makes Crow look weak and makes Hoss look somewhat stupid. Why would Hoss fear this shifty-eyed punk?

This weakens the dramatic situation and makes the second act seem more forced than the first. The second act is also hampered by acoustical problems. The big showdown between Hoss and Crow, who are trying to “out-rock-star” each other, is for the most part unintelligible. Their voices are distorted through the microphones, and the live band onstage nearly drowns them out.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of this production is the rock-and-roll world that these characters inhabit. Most of these characters seem awfully clean-cut, clearheaded, and energetic. Only Miller’s Becky Lou captures that wonderfully anesthetized Dead-head quality Shepard seems to delight in.

Despite these obstacles, this production of The Tooth of Crime is quite successful because it sticks to telling an engaging and human story without sacrificing the rich ambiguity of Shepard’s stage images. Much of the credit must go to Reardon, for creating such a nuanced character from a script that can seem anything but nuanced. Reardon has reined in his Hoss, perhaps robbing him of some of the charisma he needs if we are to believe he is a pop-music sensation–indeed, Hoss’s few musical numbers are disappointingly tame–but giving him the humanity that gives this production much of its soul.

Even more credit must be given to director Karen Kessler, who has resisted the temptation to create yet another always-loud-always-fast-always-in-your-face piece of Chicago rock-and-roll theater. Kessler’s production is thoughtfully structured and carefully paced, allowing for explosive outbursts, contemplative musings, and everything in between. As a result, the show is a clear, integrated whole. Kessler gives us a lot of heart and not a lot of flash, which will probably not be terribly popular. But integrity is more important than popularity.