Sam Shephard’s “Cowboy Mouth” is a rich and rewarding play for the probing glance it provides into modern man’s psyche. This all-engrossing piece has the power to hypnotize the spectator, engaging his sentiments while lending a voice to his aspirations.

Slim (Benjamin Woodlock ’02) and his girlfriend Cavale (Allysha Powanda ’03) are a pair of drifters, holed up in a third-rate apartment in a depressed border town. They are fleeing difficult pasts and a boring society to realize a Brandoesque dream of existential immortality.

Slim, for instance, wants to be a rock star — and Cavale encourages, even forces him, down the path — and his music, which he plays in difficult moments, speaks to his primal anger. His life history remains shrouded in mystery: we know only that he has left a wife and child to follow his girlfriend, in a country marooned under the sun. But Slim’s obsession with 19th century French dandy Gerard de Nerval — whose search for the sublime led into Brittany, the Orient and a world of hallucinogens — is telling, for Slim is after nothing less than modern salvation, and he sifts through the dregs of society to find it.

The room he shares with Cavale is pure skid row, with empty cigarette packs, pizza boxes and liquor bottles littered across the floor. The two spend their time fighting, telling stories and working themselves into frenzies of uncontrollable anger and ecstasy. In this sense, Shephard has presented us with an elongated skit more than a play — indeed, running time is only one hour — but that only makes for a more powerful effect.

No need to make things run around a hacked up storyline: Shephard’s urgent work, with the direction of Ryan Iverson ’02, shines through in its utter barrenness.

Powanda does a good job of playing Cavale, which is saying a lot considering her script is not as strong as Woodlock’s. Both are impulsive beatniks — and well-executed ones at that, avoiding the cliches — able to descend into madness on stage without losing the audience. Cavale, we learn, has returned from a mental institution, perhaps after witnessing many of her friends committing suicide. But her character, while seemingly intended to recall Goya and his fascinating “caprichos,” almost loses the audience. Why, for example, must she obsess over a dead crow? It forms an admirable, but maybe too distracting, component of the couple’s story. Shock effect is not everything, even with an actress as exceptional as Powanda.

The novel introduction of the “Lobster Man” (Dave Croke ’02), a take-off of Nerval, who walked a lobster down the streets of Paris in the 1860s is certainly a believable entrance into the piece. The couple, in a fit of lovemaking, decide they must have lobster. They call Croke, a weird sort of Landry’s deliveryman dressed in a lobster suit. Later, they decide they want to get to know him, to break down the impersonal barriers that divide men, and so they invite him back. Only then do they tear off his lobster suit to behold what lies beneath.

What is disappointing about the play, although not a criticism, is the fact that it presents no solutions, when there are bound to be some. Perhaps the trick would lie in a reinterpretation of the Christ figure too easily abandoned, or at least in something as easy as a commitment to helping others. Indeed, “Cowboy Mouth” sows a despair that — while well in line with the intellectual traditions of the 20th century — need not be a foregone conclusion for the century ahead. For the Brando so often invoked also possessed his Viva Zapata, his Don Juan de Marco, offering an exit from nihilism.

Cowboy Mouth

Nick Chapel

Friday at 8 and 11:59 p.m.

Saturday at 8 p.m.

Sunday at 2 p.m.

e-mail: Colette Robert

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