Edinburgh 98: Theatre - When Shepard lost his way in the Penthouse suite

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"WARNING! THIS play contains (porno) graphic sexual language," the programme shrieks. With a record 1,309 shows competing for attention on the Fringe this year, it would be more peculiar to find one that wasn't being pimped with the promise of salacious language. While you cannot accuse Pontoon Productions of getting their audiences in under false pretences, this little-known work by Sam Shepard - the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright, actor and cool cat - currently being given its belated European premiere, is not above the charge of gratuitousness.

At the beginning of the piece - hailed as a shocking and titillating sensation by the New York Times when it was first staged in 1970 - we find crude-talking Miss Cherry (Elizabeth Perry) lounging in her pink boudoir in her negligee, engrossed in an erotic novel which she has plucked from the piles that lap at the foot of her bed. We hear a detailed description of an act of fellatio that climaxes unexpectedly in a jet of urine.

This distasteful scenario serves to underline, rather than counteract, Miss Cherry's own sexual frustration. With her wealthy husband absent, she can get her thrills only by taunting her effeminate servant Wong, her mute masseur, and Chunky Puke, a salesman with a suitcase full of titles like Moist Dungeon.

Civil war seems to have broken out in the unnamed American city outside the house, and before long a bleeding, bearded, rifle-wielding maniac called Geez storms this castle of bourgeois ennui and holds its princess hostage. Sex, it turns out, is the last thing on his mind.

The director Matthew Gray and his cast successfully bring out the humour in Shepard's dream-like meeting between the haves and the have-nots, and the fantasies that sustain them.

Geez is a typical Shepard male, albeit with hints of the demented Vietnam veteran about him: a dysfunctional soul, in limbo between the wild west of Hollywood and dreams of sexy rock'n'roll suicide.

However, having set up the situation, the dialogue fails to deliver any real tension, even when Miss Cherry's capitalist pig of a husband shows up ("You're being screwed up the arse by your own life," he is told).

The most captivating section of the play proves to be the slow, silent Balinese dance performed by Mavin Khoo playing the liberated Wong. This is the closest that any of the play's characters gets to the throes of ecstasy.

Shepard went to London in search of inspiration the year after Shaved Splits was staged, and you can see him running out of gas here. That it has taken this long to reach us is no great wonder.

A play for Sam Shepard enthusiasts, then - or for readers of Penthouse.

'Shaved Splits' runs at the Assembly Rooms until 5 September (0131-226 2428). This review appeared in some editions of yesterday's paper