Rock 'n' roll and stage drama haven't always made the best of pairings, but, despite a snarling blues-bar-of-the-damned T Bone Burnett score ably wrangled by live band Outland Prey, The Tooth of Crime isn't really about rock (nor crime, nor dentistry). Sam Shepard's 1972 play, currently presented by Contagious Theatre at the Hostess, employs the devil's music as the fundamental signifier of a culture not so much bankrupt as endlessly mortgaged, torn between a fundamental regard for the purity of its origins and the addictive grasping for novelty as an end to itself.
Set in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic United States, the play's recurrent nods to distant cities ground narrative flights of fancy while shaping the wisps of lyrical delirium as a peculiarly American obsession with (and acceptance of) self-mythologizing. Hoss, our antihero (a callow Chris Cornell in this telling), flits from cowboy to gangster to petulant, preening frontman amid dizzying wordplay that only vaguely defines the parameters of a dystopian elsewhere governed by blood lust and notions of expressly quantified fulfillment. After laying waste to areas of the Southwest and proving himself time and again through "sanctioned" kills evaluated by professional referees sent for the purpose, he's near the top of…someone's charts, though uneasy lies the head that wears the nu-metal Van Dyke.
Consumed with fears his moment has passed, begging perspective from a raved-up DJ and a steampunk astrologer, doubting reassurances of groupie and gang (and drugs administered by a pointedly hoarse opera doctor), Hoss eventually embraces the challenge of a young interloper to mortal combat by beat poetry slam. None of it's meant to be taken terribly seriously, so far as plot and characters are concerned, but the helter-skelter effluvia of jargon and rhythmic certainties of bop monologues shrug an addled gravity of intent. Precisely irrigated streams of consciousness reward the notes they don't say, and the streamlined production nastily evokes the shadows looming over a society born to value only rock 'n' roll but not, perhaps, like it.