Cowboy Mouth, a combustible 1971 period piece by actor-playwright Sam Shepard, owes its genesis to a torrid affair between Shepard and rock star Patti Smith. According to Shepard's friends, the play was "one of the wildest autobiographies he ever produced and one of the most exciting performances they've ever seen -- the few that got to see it." Shepard fled during a preview performance at the American Place Theatre -- deserting Patti Smith in life and in art in order to return to his wife and child. The Playtime Company's current effort faithfully delivered this "gonzo" narrative, à la Hunter Thompson, of fear and loathing in New York City.
The downtown Chelsea Hotel provided the pad for Smith -- known in the play as Cavale (Lisa Fernandez) -- to crash with her prisoner, Shepard --renamed "Slim" (Zack Buell), as in "cowboy." Ambivalence oozed everywhere on the accurate set -- catalogued in the strewn pizza boxes, the graffiti ("Make Sex Have Music"), the discarded clothes, and the musical instruments, including drums and guitars, and in the action of the twisted sex, the drugs, and the rock and roll -- and, yes, the gun. Buell, tormented and coyote-like, and Fernandez, voracious and explosive, powered ably through the frenzied, intensifying iterations of an infantile, dangerous game, but the plot still cries out for a deus ex machina. The play and the production delivered in form of The (hilarious) "Lobster Man" (Solomon Landerman) -- a freaky phantom of their paranoia, who spoke in crustacean tongues while bearing live seafood, bagels, and Pepsi. Although Cavale's name means "escape," it was not she but rather The Lobster Man who made it ultimately clear that any trap could be discarded -- or molted, in this case. Slim could walk out that door any time, which he finally did, leaving the sexual dervish Cavale to -- apologies to Steven Stills -- love the one she was with. Slim did not ride off into the sunset, but Shepard's cowboy was more of the "midnight" variety -- as in slow to see the light.
The company's lurid synergy kept the action coherent, thanks to the deft direction of this erotic meltdown by Alan Langdon, who deserves special recognition for a theatrical opening involving fellatio and a dead crow -- no mean feat of staging and lighting in the intimate, bare-bones-equipped, 33-seat Sonnet Theatre. The three strong actors collaborated with the director on the production, satisfying the need for seediness in costumes, lights, and set. Pre-curtain, the music of Johnny Ace, Hank Williams, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Jimi Hendrix, The Patti Smith Group, and the Rolling Stones recalled the early-1970s Zeitgeist while setting the appropriate mood for the doomed fantasy of the R&R Jesus with the Cowboy Mouth. Special recognition goes to Landerman for his wild-ass concoction of red flannel, oven mitts, and wearable trap, a.k.a. The Lobster Man.
Clearly not an easy script to handle -- perhaps Cowboy Mouth is not a play at all. Like any raging addiction, it is possessed of a consuming energy that devours everything in its path. Why stage it? In the morning after, there is something important to be learned from the recreation of Shepard's personal demons -- something about man's tormented search for the door.
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Copyright 2004 Deborah S. Greenhut