• U.S.

The Theater: Cutting Session

3 minute read
T.E. Kalem



Sam Shepard is a tantalizing playwright. At 28 he has had a dozen or so plays produced. Each has a beat rather than a shape. What is fiercely staccato, and possibly feverishly sick in contemporary U.S. life, holds an undeniable fascination for him.

He is quite good at isolating pockets and spasms and rumbles of life that the “straight” American uneasily feels are going on behind his back, or under his feet, or over his head. Shepard is a sensitive monitor of what might be called the Cross-Over Culture, the place and time where private black lingo, black clothing fashions, black drugs and violence, and black music become part of some whites’ lifestyles. This is osmotic rather than overt, something in the mood and tempo of his work, and not in the presence of any black characters in his plays. Nor is it his only concern. Fast cars, mechanical gadgetry, chrome and plastic values festoon his works and form a symbolic veneer under which, he seems to be saying, older American ideals are shriveling.

The Code. Understanding Shepard’s continuing theme is a necessity if the playgoer is to glean what the author’s latest play, The Tooth of Crime, is basically about. Currently having its U.S. première at the McWhirter Theater in Princeton, N.J., it features a hero named Hoss (Frank Langella), who is a rock star. He is also a kind of robber baron of the Western freeways. He is a “marker” who scores “kills” and controls cities as fiefs. Hoss also works within a system, never deviating from “the Code.” His territory is allotted to him by unseen “keepers” who seem to be a cross between Mafia godfathers and Soviet commissars. Hoss has his entourage: a doctor (John Scanlan) who gives him heroin for lifts, and a girl (Gloria Maddox) who exists merely to verify that Hoss is on top.

But Hoss is shivering inside his black leather. Unbound by the system or the code, “gypsy” mavericks are working the territory. In Act II, Hoss is challenged by a gypsy named Crow (Mark Metcalf). They engage in a sacrificial stomping dance entangled in electric cords and thrust microphones. It is part musical cutting session, part machine-gun duel of far-out words, and it is as chillingly old as a tribal rite in which the young warrior snatches control from the aging patriarch. The language varies between wild incomprehensibility and allusive symbolism. Crow, for instance, calls Hoss, “Feathers,” meaning horse feathers, but also meaning that Hoss is chicken. Everyone should be provided with a text before they enter the playhouse. If the words are often unclear, their intent is not. This is language as an instrument of murder, of a primordial bloodlust deep in man’s loins. Pacifists of the world, take fright.

∎ T.E.Kalem

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