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Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard were made for each other. Even when portraying likeable or well-adjusted characters — something he doesn’t get to do very often — Shannon projects an air of danger and menace that makes him perfectly suited for Shepard’s particular brand of misfits. These qualities are amply on display in Shannon’s gripping turn in this superb production of Shepard’s rarely performed 1994 work, Simpatico, originally staged in 2013 at Chicago’s tiny A Red Orchid Theatre, and now being presented at Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center.
The production marks a fitting tribute to the playwright who died in August at age 73. While this rendition doesn’t make a thorough case for the problematic work being unjustly neglected, the superb acting and visceral staging make it gripping theater nonetheless.
The diffuse, sprawling drama begins in a seedy motel room in Cucamonga, California — the city’s name alone makes it a perfect setting for a Shepard play — where Carter (Shannon) has come to visit his old friend Vinnie (Guy Van Swearingen). It’s immediately apparent that the two men have reached very different points in their lives after having been partners 15 years earlier in a criminal scheme involving a shady racing official. Carter, who’s now a prosperous horse breeder living in Kentucky and married to Vinnie’s old girlfriend Rosie, arrives wearing a sharp suit and an air of confidence. Having bankrolled Vinnie for many years, he now offers him a lump-sum payment in return for incriminating photos still in in his possession.
Vinnie, on the other hand, lives in the sort of decrepit squalor that Carter’s suggestion of adding “a few throw rugs” won’t fix. He often pretends to be a detective to impress women, which hasn’t prevented one he’s been involved with from having him arrested for, among other things, harassment.
“You’re not carrying a weapon again, are you?” Carter wearily asks him.
“Only on dates!” Vinnie protests.
After Vinnie informs him that the woman, Ceclia (Mierka Girten), has some of the pictures, Carter pays her a visit to retrieve them. He soon learns that Vinnie hasn’t been telling the truth about his relationship with Cecilia, whose lifelong dream, it turns out, is to attend the Kentucky Derby. The storyline becomes more byzantine when Cecilia travels to Kentucky to confront Simms (John Judd), a former racing bigwig who had to change his name and now lives in relative obscurity; and Vinnie goes to see Rosie, hoping to win her back by offering her the photographs.
The play (which was made into an unmemorable movie in 1999, with Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte and Sharon Stone) often feels reminiscent of film noir in its convoluted plotting and characters haunted by the past. Shepard isn’t shy about revealing his inspiration, with Simms complaining at one point that they don’t make pictures like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon anymore. “Pictures with a plot you could sink your teeth into,” he enthuses. But the playwright’s penchant for weighty, mythic themes is evident as well. Reminiscent of such earlier works as True West and Fool for Love, Simpatico culminates with an allegorical scene in which the two lead characters seem to have switched identities. Carter, who represented the pinnacle of worldly success, becomes reduced to a desperately babbling physical wreck after overindulging in alcohol, while Vinnie displays an unexpected strength.
Unfortunately, the play lacks the emotional resonance of Shepard’s truly great dramas, with too many scenes feeling dully attenuated and lacking a payoff. One exception, especially as realized here, is the encounter between Vinnie and his ex-love, now enjoying a lavish lifestyle in a Southern mansion. Magnificently played by Jennifer Engstrom in a show-stealing performance, Rosie resembles a dotty Tennessee Williams heroine with a tenuous grasp on reality but an animal cunning nonetheless.
Director Dado infuses the narratively vague proceedings with intense theatricality and visual flair, abetted by Grant Sabin’s inventive sets, incorporating metal scaffolding and a giant curtain. But the piece most benefits from the superb performances of the well-honed ensemble, all but Judd recreating their roles from the Red Orchid production. Tapping into the dark humor that permeates Shepard’s writing, they tear into their characters with typical Chicago theater muscularity. Shannon — who received superlative reviews at the fall festivals for his villainous turn in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water — may be the box-office draw, but all the performers here deliver the goods.
Venue: Berlind Theatre, Princeton, New Jersey
Production: A Red Orchid Theatre
Cast: Kristin E. Ellis, Jennifer Engstrom, Mierka Girten, John Judd, Michael Shannon, Guy Van Swearingen
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Set designer: Grant Sabin
Costume designer: Christine Pascual
Lighting designer: Mike Durst
Sound designer: Joe Court
Presented by the McCarter Theatre Center
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