With Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love," the Round House Theatre has become once again a place to watch.

It wasn't for much of last season, but this furious, phantasmagorical drama, acted with almost punch-drunk verve, is an instant antidote to the doldrums that have of late immobilized the company and its productions.

Shepard's extended one-act play -- the stormy account of a rodeo performer and the woman he keeps leaving only to come roaring back, hot and panting -- is as troubling as those bad dreams in which the harder you run, the less distance you seem to cover. But it's also laced with steamy humor and a poetic appreciation for the wide-open American spaces, even if they are shrinking fast. Above all, Shepard has written two flamboyant roles for actors to sink their teeth (and nails and elbows and heels) into. Fueled by such dramatic riches, the Round House takes off.

Eddie (Thomas Schall), the impetuous cowboy, has just driven 2,480 miles to reclaim May (Janet Bryant), the woman of his obsessions, in a sterile motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert. When we first meet them, they are in the midst of a slam-bang fight. She claims to have had enough of his gallivanting and, furthermore, she's got a date arriving soon. So why doesn't he vamoose? He swears the bond between them can never be ruptured, never really has been. They go into a passionate clinch . . . and she knees him in the groin. But when he does make for the door, she lets out a yowl that says "Stay!"

The first half of the play consists of this grueling tug of war -- the two participants taking time out mainly to fortify themselves with tequila or to speculate on the identity of the driver of an ominous Mercedes purring outside the motel. In the second act, May's date, a befuddled lawn maintenance man (Daniel Yates) shows up and explanations for Eddie and May's conduct begin to emerge from the dark depths of their past.

It is a hypnotic saga of perverted passion, told in an increasing hush. (One of the daring things Shepard does in "Fool for Love" is to reverse the usual dramatic progression, starting out at fever pitch and ending up with what, in other plays, would be the exposition.) May and Eddie share the same father, a wandering man who drove the two women in his life to suicidal frenzy and paroxysms of jealousy. Or so it would appear. The father, an old geezer (Richard DeAngelis), has been present throughout the play -- a ghost sipping his liquor from a brown bag. Still wandering -- only this time through walls -- he denies any recollection of those long-ago events and spins strange memories of his own.

Shepard buries his secrets deep. Humans are, in his view, violently enigmatic creatures . But if we never exactly know what skeletons molder in the earth, there's no discounting the suspicious swell in the terrain. All we can be sure of is that Eddie and May, second-generation players in a continuing drama of blood passion, are living out the equivalent of a Greek curse. The fury of the parents courses in the veins of the children, and they're hurtling toward the apocalypse.

In that respect, the thick, purple thunderclouds are just right. They hover over Richard H. Young's set -- a cheap motel room that has the sharp edges and unsettling emptiness of a surrealistic canvas. Director Susann Brinkley uses it as both an operating room and a boxing ring, and in her vigorous staging "Fool for Love" is first and foremost a graphic physical eruption.

Schall, looking every inch the lanky cowpoke, does handstands on the iron headboard and back flips off the sagging mattress. He's the Marlboro man gone loco; the golden vistas have vanished, and he's reduced to roping the bedpost. Schall fights the demons and the invisible fences persuasively.

Bryant, who possesses a seductively hoarse voice, matches him in explosiveness. The actress has no fear of going over the edge; she hurtles up against walls in anguish and into Eddie's arms with raw love and hate. Even in her quiet moments, you know another outburst is gathering.

Sexually explicit as this production is, however, it seems to me that Shepard's script is more highly erotic than the actors are suggesting. Basic biology is what propels the characters, and while Schall and Bryant strike lots of sparks, they don't quite ignite bonfires. DeAngelis' grizzled father is also a liability -- closer to the world of Disney than to that of Shepard. But Yates' slightly dim-witted puzzlement as May's boyfriend is in the right key.

"Fool for Love," which runs through Nov. 3, is sure to ruffle some sensibilities, especially those accustomed to the tamer fare in the Round House's past. But even that, I think, is a welcome change. The torpor was getting endemic. This shake-up has been long overdue.Fool for Love, by Sam Shepard. Directed by Susann Brinkley; sets, Richard H. Young; costumes, Rosemary Pardee-Holz; lighting, Scott Bethke. With Thomas Schall, Janet Bryant, Daniel Yates, Richard DeAngelis. At the Round House through Nov. 3.