CAUSTIC COUPLE Leach and Appleman. [Photo by Pete Simons]
Sam, Patti — how the hell did you ever survive your misspent youth?
Playwright Sam Shepard wrote and performed Cowboy Mouth — it’s getting a raucous rendition by Out Loud Theatre (through December 20) — in 1971, exchanging the blistering dialogue with poet/future punk rocker Patti Smith, which gives you an idea of the play’s intemperate temperature. Kira Hawkridge directs, or should I say fans the flames?
This sprawling and brawling dialogue, over in less than an hour, might leave you feeling more like you’ve witnessed a street fight than a play. Credited here to Shepard alone, it was written with Smith as they took turns banging on a typewriter.
Since it was created by a two-person committee, albeit an artistic one, this comes across more like a twisting bank robbery escape than a straightforward race toward a final curtain. In fact, there are occasional touches (“Get out of my house!”) that allow us to think the play isn’t really taking place in a border town hotel near El Paso.
Before the actors arrive on the scene, you get the picture of physical destruction that will background the psychological destruction. It’s a ragbag of a bedroom, with clothing and crumpled newspapers piled and scattered. When they enter, Cavale (Sarah Leach) and Slim (Sam Appleman) are in little better shape, arguing from the get-go. He has left his wife and children to go off with her.
Like a child begging for a bedtime story, he asks her to tell him about Gérard de Nerval, the 19th-century French poet, an eccentric known for his pet raven and taking his pet lobster for walks in the Palais Royal gardens. Cavale claims that Nerval hanged himself on his birthday, a departure from his actual biography but revealing about her own state of mind.
She also has a black bird for a pet, a crow named Raymond that she had stuffed. She says she prefers the crow to Slim because it doesn’t complain. When especially frustrated, the inarticulate Slim expresses himself by whanging on an electric guitar or slamming around furiously on a drum kit.
Dissatisfaction is at the heart of their need for personal transformation. They both use bad grammar now and then, and she pronounces the name of the French artist-criminal Jean Genet as Gen-ette, so she knows him from reading rather than a classroom.
Cavale has been searching for someone she could turn into a rock star, like the folkloric Johnny Ace she tells him of — “all the girls would cry when he sang.” She encourages Slim to join in spinning fanciful stories with her (“my only religion”) and is disappointed when he does so too literally, unimaginatively. Eventually he comes through, as when she asks him for red tap shoes with pretty ribbons and he takes her on an imaginary journey to steal them.