"The Tooth of Crime," Sam Shepard's 1972 drama revived for a brief run at the Washington Project for the Arts by the experimental group called Paradise Island Express, is the story of two men battling over an empire. But whether the empire is one of crime, rock records, drugs or hot rods is never specified. An old order, represented by an aging magnate named Hoss who still subscribes to "the code," is being edged out by the new order, embodied by Crow, a steely-eyed free-lance punk.

Don't ask for more specifics. What is both tantalizing and maddening about this futuristic vision of a neon-lit, coke-fueled world that is fast losing its feelings, is its absence of conventional pegs. There are rules in this society -- Crow is a menace because he patently disregards them -- although we never know exactly what the rules are. Who these people are or how they got here is left vague. Crow even talks in a mythical argot that is largely impenetrable to Hoss -- slang being yet another crowbar to unseat the entrenched. The two ultimately have their showdown in the ring. But instead of fists, they fling at one another words and images, verbal riffs inspired by throbbing strains of rock and blues.

If you can see beyond the pierced ears, hot pants, chains and greased hair, Shepard has written an unsettling agon. Youth is prevailing over the no-longer youthful. Spring is supplanting winter, as it always does. Only this time, spring promises not to be a time of rebirth, but a season of hollow cynicism.

The Paradise Island production, directed by Deirdre Lavrakas, has a fair grip on matters, although it is not hallucinatory enough to overpower the basic demands of most audiences for a rational experience in the theater. Nightmares are nightmares, precisely because they offer no escape. While this production has its stretches of intensity, it also suffers periodic power shortages, when the play merely seems purposefully cryptic.

Jack Halstead captures much of the weariness and confusion of Hoss, the man marked for extinction. But the arrogance that once made him a champion isn't nearly so vivid. As a result, the battle's outcome seems pre-ordained as soon as Crow (in the chilly punk presence of Christopher Hurt) shows up. Hurt has laser beams for eyes and a perfectly sardonic sneer, and is the most forceful presence in the cast.

Jane Lange makes Hoss' gofer and secretary a bimbo for the 21st century, while Michael Henderson plays Doc, the man with the snow, with telling imbecility. The other creatures in this galaxy are not so sharply limned, however, and some of them appear to be impervious to the pop and rock music that coils around the play, like a venomous snake.

Later this season, Arena Stage will be mounting "Buried Child," a subsequent and far more accessible Shepard play. For those who want to know where the playwright's coming from, as they say, Paradise Island Express offers a perspective. Its production of "Tooth of Crime" is certainly bizarre, if only partially convincing.

THE TOOTH OF CRIME. By Sam Shepard. Directed by Deirdre Lavrakas; sound, Paul Lavrakas and Rex West; set, Kim Peter Kovac, Christopher Hurt, Robert Dick; costumes, William Pucilowsky. With Jack Halstead, Jane Lange, Nick Olcott, Michael Henderson, Christopher Hurt. At the WPA tonight, tomorrow and Dec. 15 through 19.