September 27, 2017

Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico” Is a Gritty Tale of Double Lives; A Red Orchid Theatre Brings Chicago Production to McCarter

“SIMPATICO”: Performances are underway for A Red Orchid Theatre’s production of “Simpatico.” Directed by ensemble member Dado, the play runs through October 15 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Vinnie (Guy Van Swearingen, left) threatens to sabotage the veneer of respectability that is carefully maintained by his ex-partner Carter (Michael Shannon. (Photo by Richard Termine)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter Theatre has opened its season with Sam Shepard’s Simpatico. Asked by The New York Times what makes actors good in their work, the playwright — who died July 27 —responded, “Adventure. An actor who’s willing to jump off the cliff, he’s going to go anywhere.” This production proves Shepard’s point.

On multiple levels, Simpatico is a gritty, chaotic odyssey. It is a journey across America; the action takes place in California and Kentucky, and each of the two protagonists travels from one state to the other.

Video screens, Mike Durst’s lighting, and Joe Court’s sound design, which includes effective use of music, all contribute to a raucous ambience typical of a roadhouse where one might stop during a trip across the country.

For more than one character, the play is an odyssey from fragile control to despair. For others, it is a journey from defeat to a measure of hope.

“There are two men, Carter and Vinnie,” director Dado comments in a promotional video for the production. “And sometimes I think it’s one man that got psychically split down the middle.”

Like the actors, Dado is a member of A Red Orchid Theatre. The ensemble is based in Chicago, and presented Simpatico there in 2013. This production is their first collaboration with McCarter Theatre.

Fifteen years before the action takes place, Vinnie and Carter were partners in a plot to fix a horse race. The scheme involved shady photographs in which Simms, a racing official, was pictured with Rosie, a femme fatale who dated Vinnie but married Carter.

Many journeys involve baggage, including dirty laundry. In Simpatico this is both metaphorical and literal. More than one character has a briefcase or box filled with mysterious contents, and Vinnie’s squalid apartment is filled with clothes that need washing. “You shouldn’t ought to let the laundry pile up on you, Vinnie. It gives you a bad impression of yourself,” Carter chides him. Vinnie retorts, “I don’t need the laundry for that.” Carter offers to hire domestic help for Vinnie.

Carter has managed, at least outwardly, to exchange his dodgy past for a respectable affluent life with a wife and family. He bribes Vinnie to prevent him from sabotaging this façade. Carter offers Vinnie money for the photographs that were crucial to their scheme, which ruined Simms.

Simpatico takes place in 1994, the year it opened, and there are topical references to the damaging potential of technology: “You’ve got no concept of how things are hooked up these days,” Carter rages at Vinnie. “How international files are kept. Information stored. Microchips. Fibre optics. Floppy discs. It’s an art form now, Vinnie! An industry!”

Vinnie indicates that the photos are now in the possession of Cecilia, a woman whom he attempted to impress by pretending to be a private investigator. Cecilia, whose dream is to attend the Kentucky Derby, met Vinnie while working at a supermarket. According to Vinnie, Cecilia is suing him for harassment.

In an attempt to regain possession of the photos, Carter visits Cecilia. He discovers that Vinnie has lied about his relationship with her. Carter hires her to assist him in recovering the pictures; this task leads her to Simms. Simms has given himself the pseudonym of “Ames” and works for the Kentucky Racing Commission.

Simpatico’s structure bears some resemblance to Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. Shepard’s opening and closing scenes feature Carter and Vinnie. The intervening vignettes include a meeting between Carter and Cecilia, and one between Cecilia and Simms. Also, Vinnie temporarily reunites with Rosie. Most of the scenes feature only two characters, though a select few involve a third.

That is what makes this play particularly entertaining: the chance to observe how each character changes their persona with every new encounter. As expected, this affords the actors ample scope, and they respond with versatile performances.

With the exception of John Judd, who portrays Simms, the actors are reprising their roles from the 2013 production. Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen have been working together for over two decades, having co-founded A Red Orchid Theatre, with actor Lawrence Grimm, in 1993. Like the characters, the actors have a long history; this preexisting rapport enriches the onstage chemistry.

To Carter, Michael Shannon brings the intensity that marked his performance as Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire. An ominous veneer of deceptive calm evaporates, to be replaced by an eruption of rage. Carter would like to believe he is in control of circumstances, but Shannon’s unsettled use of body language underlines the tenuousness of that control. As Carter’s mask of affluence is stripped away, his cool calculation dissolves into desperation.

This is complemented by Guy Van Swearingen, whose Vinnie alternates between emotive pathos and streetwise toughness. His scenes with Carter constitute a sparring match in which the volume is gradually, but relentlessly, increased. With Rosie, this volume is abruptly stifled, as Vinnie attempts to hide his emotions.

As Rosie, Jennifer Engstrom oozes charm, caressing every line of dialogue as though it were a phrase in a bluesy torch song. When she feels threatened, her flamboyant effusion gives way to operatic madness.

By contrast, Mierka Girten is a calming influence as Cecilia. As Simms, John Judd exudes a grizzled, sturdy panache, though he is especially entertaining when Simms awkwardly, though passionately, flirts with Cecilia. Kristin E. Ellis infuses Kelly, Rosie’s personal assistant, nanny, and protective gatekeeper, with confident inner strength.

Dado’s staging uses the space effectively, as does the set design by Grant Sabin. Dado and Sabin often fill the stage,  but they also know when to leave space empty.

Like the characters’ identities, the bare stage, seen by the audience upon entering the auditorium, is deceptive. A platform opens, just as Carter’s suitcase might, to reveal Vinnie’s apartment. Eventually the stage will be filled by two other boxlike sets. Cecelia’s apartment is decorated with throw-rugs, which Carter suggests that Vinnie needs. Simms’ cluttered office is stuffed with boxes and racing memorabilia.

This is a marked contrast with Rosie’s spacious house, which sports a billowing curtain and chandeliers that seem to belong in a ballroom out of My Fair Lady. Rosie’s interior decorating is just as much of an affectation as Carter’s suit.

The costumes by Christine Pascual precisely define the personality of the characters. Carter’s well-tailored suit, which nevertheless never seems like it quite belongs on him, is a marked contrast to Vinnie’s loose-fitting shirt and baggy pants. Rosie’s dress is silky and effervescent.

In 1994 Simpatico premiered at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. The film version opened in 1999.

Horses and racing were subjects of multiple Shepard plays. In Geography of a Horse Dreamer, gangsters kidnap a man whose dreams predict winners of races. Kicking a Dead Horse centers around a man whose journey is stalled by the death of his horse.

Simpatico is rife with double identities, transformations, and revelations that demand that its actors be prepared to undertake a labyrinthine adventure. Fortunately, this talented ensemble delivers the tour de force performances required by Sam Shepard’s script.

“Simpatico” will play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through October 15. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit