In red satin jacket, polished fingernails and preening self-regard, Tom Carman flutters convincingly onto the Artisphere stage as Crow, a renegade singer come to dethrone an aging rock-and-roll legend in “The Tooth of Crime,” playwright Sam Shepard’s bleak fable of the primal American struggle for the mantle of alpha star.
It’s a weirdly watchable performance by a magnetic young actor — is there a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” in the future of this 2010 Catholic University grad? — that’s meant to amplify the sinister notes in Shepard’s 1972 work, with its anguished melodies and invented vernacular.
If every aspect of the production were executed with Carman’s level of menacing suaveness — his stylized physicality seems calculated to keep your eyes glued to him — then WSC Avant Bard could boast an impressively well-integrated revival. As it is, though, this “Tooth of Crime” lacks an urgent core, a deficit traceable to the absence of true grit in the pivotal role of Hoss, the top-dog rocker anxiously fixated on the younger rivals showing up in his rearview mirror.
Director Kathleen Akerley makes satisfyingly clear the generational chasm between Hoss and Crow: In “Tooth of Crime,” Shepard is dealing with one of his favorite themes, the replacing of an authentic American spirit with one endorsing empty values and ersatz symbols. In Shepard’s nightmare vision of the wages of celebrity, venerable stars like Hoss live in compounds with moats, not to protect themselves from rabid fans but to keep at bay the pretenders to his turf, upstart troubadours who want to steal his spotlight and, quite literally, bury him.
With its eccentric conjuring of the killing ground of rock-and-roll stardom, “The Tooth of Crime” parodies both the insider lingo of the music business and the makeup of a star’s entourage. DJs are roving barometers of popular taste, and “gazers” offer counsel on the star’s near-term career prospects. Rock-speak is shorthand cobbled together from beatnik slang, gangland talk and the Spanish words that seep into the vocabulary of Colorado ranch hands.
Plot is virtually nonexistent: The play’s first half is an account of Hoss’s conferences with allies such as Ruido Ran (Cyle Durkee), a slippery, double-talking platter-spinner, and Chaser (William Hayes), Hoss’s dour, battle-scarred lead guitarist. (The actors form a band that plays the new songs that were composed by T-Bone Burnett, replacing Shepard’s original music, for a 1997 revival of the play.) After intermission, Crow materializes in the compound to challenge Hoss to an apocalyptic sing-off and rattle us as the harbinger of a new era of hollow razzmatazz.
In concert with choreographer Melissa-Leigh Bustamante, Akerley explicitly defines the divergent styles of tangerine-haired Crow, who slithers like a self-infatuated rattlesnake, and John Tweel’s Hoss, who, in white T-shirt and jeans with rolled-up cuffs, plants himself stolidly at a microphone and warbles plaintively. Optimally, for the final confrontation to work, an audience must fully believe in the lofty perch that Hoss occupies and that his fall would be a colossal, even tragic, comedown.
Tweel is an actor of substance; if you saw him years ago in Cherry Red’s subversive “Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?” as Dan Rather, you know he can convey earthiness as well as a sense of humor. Here, he must also compel you as a great entertainer — or, at least, as one who once had those chops and is aware that, at last, his powers are failing him. It’s a monstrously difficult role, undoubtedly the toughest assignment in “Tooth of Crime.” It may ultimately be that the part requires a singer more than an actor.
The theater space in the Artisphere, though, continues to be a fitting venue for WSC. Set designer Jessica Moretti divides the audience in half and places the proceedings on a lengthwise runway, with the band at one end and at the other, Hoss’s throne, wittily identifiable by the guitar necks splayed like points of a crown. (Lynly Saunders’s costumes, too, are full of panache.) In the Artisphere theater’s close quarters, Burnett’s music has extra oomph, especially when Carman applies his eerie, Bowie-esque vibe.
by Sam Shepard, music by T. Bone Burnett. Directed by Kathleen Akerley. Set, Jessica Moretti; lighting, Jason Aufdem-Brinke; costumes, Lynly Saunders; sound and musical director, Neil McFadden; choreographer, Melissa-Leigh Bustamante. With Mickey Daniel DaGuiso, Sam McMenamin, Vince Eisenson, Jennifer Hopkins, Graham Pilato. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through July 1 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-418-4808. www.wscavantbard.org.