A Sam Shepard double feature - 10 years later

Cowboy Mouth. Play by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. Directed by Ann Raychael. Cowboy Mouth (in Concert). Play by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. Directed by George Ferencz.

''Cowboy Mouth'' isn't a play, it's a tantrum. In a nonstop torrent of words, ranging from vile to lyrical. Its two spaced-out characters howl their anger, loneliness, and frustration at things in general. Twice they are visited by a giant lobster, who brandishes his claws harmlessly and always knocks politely before entering. Rarely is anyone happy.

While the work is conspicuously lacking in the charm department, it has a fierce energy, and some of its passages are richly written. Still, it's hard to imagine why two productions have opened at about the same time in New York, 10 years after it was first produced with the authors in the leading roles. The new edition at the Wonderhorse Theater is billed as ''Cowboy Mouth (in Concert)'' and promoted as a ''rock-and-roll version.'' But this surreal meditation on the sour side of the American dream is a rock-and-roll experience no matter how you slice it, and the other new incarnation - at the 78th Street Theater Lab - equally reflects the spirit of its authors, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard and rock-music poetess Patti Smith.

Indeed, the ''concert'' version is the weaker of the two, and somewhat misleading in its designation. It isn't really a concert, but a trio recital, with three unaccompanied performers alternately speaking, hollering, and singing a few Patti Smith poems before launching into a helter-skelter rendition of the drama itself, which is similarly declaimed into microphones on a bare stage. No instruments are played, and the effect of the musical passages is less rock-and-roll than rhythm and blues, of the a cappella sort that street corner singers used to improvise back in the 1950s. The main performers, Annette Kurek and Brooks McKay, are long on passion but short on everything else, including modulation.

The production at the 78th Street Theater Lab (through Nov. 22) is more naturalistic, set in a messy room that convincingly represents the middle-of-nowhere place and end-of-the-road emotional condition the characters have somehow arrived at. As the antihero and antiheroine, Slim and Cavale, performers Daniel Region and Peggy Bruen comport themselves with skill and conviction, except when Mr. Region is called upon to play the guitar, which he evidently doesn't know how to do.

A few successful moments don't make a meaningful evening, though, and it remains to be asked whether ''Cowboy Mouth'' is worth reviving, notwithstanding the high celebrity of its authors. The answer appears to be no. It partakes more the clanging noise of Miss Smith's rock group and the hallucinatory spew of her ''Babel'' poetry than the firm craftsmanship and sharp imagination of such a Shepard work as, say, ''The Tooth of Crime.'' Sound and fury are the names of this particular game. It's no fun to play.

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