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Admirable are the aspirations and accomplishments of Signature Theatre Company, which devotes each season to a particular playwright. This year it's Sam Shepard, but the decision to mount his 1972 "Tooth of Crime"--revised and subtitled "(Second Dance)"--as a commercial, Off-Broadway production is unfortunate. Co-produced with Second Stage, the work proves maddeningly metaphorical and dramatically dreary.

To do the play at all is not the question. Of course, Shepard's early work deserves to be seen. But this full-scale presentation exposes without enlightening. Though played at maximum velocity, it's eventually soporific.

The barely linear plot pits two rock stars against one another. The older, Hoss, rules uneasily over his kingdom. Threatening him is Crow, an upstart, mythical young punk, cool as Hoss is sweaty.

The second-act confrontation is won by Crow, a victory for someone "conceived in a behavior station, light years from civilization." Hoss, who wanted to live by an evidently now-outdated code, commits suicide.

Shepard's language is tough, jivey, ambiguous, and visceral. Emerging are themes built upon in later, more communicative works. Here are the decline of the West, the surrogate father-son battles, the conflict between thinking and feeling. The world is becoming rotten: Either join up or die.

The actors, floored by the dialogue, emphasize physicality. Vincent D'Onofrio plays Hoss with fingers splayed and throat muscles strained. Kirk Acevedo slithers about as Crow. Rebecca Wisocky is girlfriend Becky, Sturgis Warner the mad scientist Meera, Jeffrey Anders Ware the helpful Ruido Ran, and Paul Butler the sympathetic Doc. Jesse Lenat as Chaser and Michael Deep as the Ref bring welcome moments of quiet relief.

Adding to the cacophony are David Van Tieghem's sound score and design and Kevin Cunningham & Wild Kind's video design.Bone Burnett's music and lyrics are leathery. E. David Cosier's set, Teresa Snider-Stein's costumes, and Anne Militello's lighting are stark.

Director Bill Hart may have had clues about how to make the play seem less dated and more meaningful to contemporary audiences. Whatever those were he kept to himself.

Presented by Second Stage Theatre and Signature Theatre Co. in association with Lucille Lortel, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., NYC, Dec. 23

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