“Do you want to talk, or do you want to be cryptic and weird?”
Those words – which sound like they might belong in a lot of Sam Shepard’s plays – appear in the first scene of Shepard’s Simpatico. And they set the tone for this sometimes cryptic, sometimes weird, but always riveting production at McCarter Theatre Center. Shepard’s tale of double-crosses and lost chances receives a glossy yet gritty take in this production from Chicago-based A Red Orchid Theatre.
Simpatico revolves around two longtime friends, Carter and Vinnie, whose lives have gone in different directions: Carter is smooth, polished and rolling in money, while Vinnie is a broken, destitute shell of a man, living off the hush money Carter has been paying him for fifteen years. You see, fifteen years ago, Carter pulled off an illegal scheme involving horseracing and blackmail – and Vinnie took a bunch of illicit photos that made the scheme a success. Now, all these years later, Vinnie is so eager to escape poverty that he has decided to finally make those photos pay off for him. The cocksure Carter dismisses Vinnie’s desperation, but before long things start to unravel. And as the plot bounces from California to Kentucky and back again, status and identity keep shifting. As in many Shepard plays, nothing is quite what it seems at first.
Simpatico is filled with vivid, richly detailed characters, zingy dialogue, and a structure that builds suspense by withholding plot details until absolutely necessary – all without getting too confusing. Still, it has its problems. It suffers from too many jerky tonal shifts from drama to comedy. The script pays tribute to classic detective movies like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity (which both get mentioned), but it never lives up to the high standards of those works. And the journey its characters go on is interesting but somewhat sterile.
Yet this production, directed with panache by Red Orchid company member Dado, minimizes the script’s weaknesses. The best scenes crackle with tension, as the characters go to extremes to control their situation. And the visual style captures the show’s dichotomy perfectly, drawing the viewer into the story. Grant Sabin’s set design places tiny, seedy, realistic rooms against a vast, dark, sleek background, and Mike Durst’s shadowy lighting emphasizes the story’s connections to classic Film Noir. Christine Pascual’s costumes successfully reflect the class differences between the characters.
And there are two great lead performances by actors who explore their characters’ darkness in intriguing, though very different, ways. Michael Shannon is no stranger to playing sordid, conflicted characters, as anyone who has seen him on Boardwalk Empire knows. As Carter, he’s fierce and intimidating in the early scenes, then slowly unravels along with his scheme. It’s a marvelous display without a false moment. Meanwhile, Guy Van Swearingen’s Vinnie is similarly complicated, but with a very different arc. His anxiety in the first scene is palpable, and seeing Van Swearingen gradually transform his personality without losing the core of his character is fascinating.
Mierka Girten is nicely droll as a quirky woman drawn into the plot against her will, and Jennifer Engstrom brings sass and a sneer to the role of the femme fatale. John Judd, as the onetime victim, seems to revel in his character’s erratic behavior. Kistin E. Ellis does nice work as in the small role of a nanny.
Simpatico may not be Shepard’s best play, but it’s still remarkably strong and, like all of Shepard’s plays, definitely worth seeing. And thanks to its compelling performances and Dado’s striking staging, it’s a production you’ll have a hard time getting out of your head.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with an intermission.
Simpatico plays through October 15, 2017 at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center – 91 University Place, in Princeton, New Jersey. For tickets, call the box office at (609) 258-2787, or purchase them online.