"I sing of the pain. The pain is real." Maggie Frisby, rock singer and central character in David hare's Teeth 'n' Smiles, says that so often in interviews that her roadies have taken to muttering, "Mostly in the arse." Beautiful, talented, self-destructive Maggie has amassed a minor cult following in England singing the songs of her former lover-mentor Arthur. "She'd prefer not to," advises her press agent. "She'd prefer to get up there and scream." Maggie's habit of dragging her band around on profitable provincial tours has landed them all at Jesus College, Cambridge, playing for a dreary undergraduate ball. The gig starts hours late. Arthur pays a surprise visit. Maggie gets drunk and passes out onstage. The band gets busted. Their sleazy but likable manager, Saraffian, arrives to fire Maggie and replace her with his new discovery. Maggie takes a bum drug rap and goes to jail. Life goes on and, as the play's memorable (and meaningfully ambiguous) closing song goes, "The music remains the same."

Written in 1975 and set in the summer of 1969, Teeth 'n' Smiles is the best play about rock 'n' roll that I know. Besides recreating the numbing boredom that engulfs many performers, it knowingly captures the mixture of nihilistic excess and romantic illusion peculiar to "the pop life." While Saraffian conducts his dirty business and the musicians line up for blowjobs from groupies, a subtle and touching love story unfolds almost wordlessly between Maggie and Arthur. The choice to portray a good but second-rate group on a grungy gig, rather than pampered superstars at their peak, is a wise one; the ho-hum reception the band gets at Cambridge is a far cry from the "star treatment" the rockers have dreamed of and obviously expect. And Nick and Tony Bicat's half-dozen songs, created for the play, are suitably raunchy, rousing and routine, by turns.

Because David Hare (Fanshen, Plenty) is a well-known political playwright, Teeth 'n' Smiles raises a number of questions about the state of England and the world. Is Maggie a symbol of ridiculous royalty, of a once-great nation robbed of its power, or is she merely herself? Do the band and its hard-driving music represent the "sound and fury, signifying nothing" of disaffected British youth? And, as Arthur asks, in an unusually heavy-handed moment, "Why is everyone so frightened?" However, because Hare is political but not polemical, the play doesn't necessarily supply answers to the questions. Events and their details are fixed, but the meaning is in flux. Near the end, Saraffian tells a seemingly significant tale about being in a  World War II London nightclub when it was bombed. Lying helpless among rubble and human wreckage, he became aware of looters moving through the dark, stealing jewelry from the dead and dying. His first thought, he says, was "I'm with you, pal." Maggie, outraged at his smug, complacent cynicism, tells him he's full of shit and resolves to "keep on the move." The ideological split between Saraffian and Maggie, business and art, age and youth would be nice and tidy, even cliched, except that Maggie's "move" is an empty gesture, that of going to jail -- in search, perhaps, of a new kind of suffering. There is a lesson to be found, Hare suggests, in the gap between what people say and what they do.

The "Rock n' Rep" production of Teeth 'n' Smiles (directed by David G. Watson) at Stage One Off-Broadway lacked some of the toughness, the hard edge the play requires. It was at times soft when it should have been crisp, sentimental when it should have been coolly brisk -- the result, you might say, of traditional differences between American and British acting. But in most other respects, the production was fine indeed. Most gratifying was the excellent use of real rock music, which I'd never seen, or rather heard, in the theater before. To be watching a play and then suddenly to be thrown back in your seat by a rush of power chords is to rediscover the power of rock 'n' roll. A superb cast included guys who could not only sing, play, and act, but could also act as though they'd been together for years. only Kenneth Ryan seemed miscast as Arthur; his blandness contributed to the production's soft center. Cabaret chanteuse Ellen Greene (she was also in Next Stop, Greenwich Village) may seem a strange choice for Maggie, a role originated by the fine British actress Helen Mirren. But appearing here (as the New York Times put it) "disguised as a blonde" and without her shrieky vocal mannerisms, Green was astonishing credible -- outrageously self-dramatizing and yet vulnerable. I only hope Bette Midler does as good a job playing Janis Joplin in The Rose.

Boston Phoenix, September 1979