Chicago Theater Review: SIMPATICO (A Red Orchid Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 9, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Sam Shepard loves to level, if not to topple, his characters. In the treacherous course of True West, two brothers exchange identities: The Hollywood hotshot falls into the bottle and his inarticulate loser of a brother gets good fortune from his sibling’s bad karma. (Harold Pinter also reverses the fates of two brothers in The Homecoming, but this time sex is the agent of collapse.) In Simpatico (1994), now playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, Shepard – being Shepard – also dabbles in regional stereotyping and playing the American West’s discredited mythology, but this time they are set against the bluegrass Lexington and Louisville snobbery of the horse-racing set. (Horse-racing was also a central theme in Shepard’s Geography of a Horse Dreamer, recently revived at Mary-Arrchie.)

So Simpatico makes for familiar bad/good Shepard, though at close to three hours it’s much longer than his terser fare. The alleged reward here comes from Shepard’s inexorable tinkering with the wheel of (mis)fortune: One character’s success requires another’s failure. But the plot, a dogged tale of blackmail revisited, never holds up. Unlike True West, the plausibility of the downfall here is in dire doubt.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema LA review of Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico” – A Red Orchid Theatre in ChicagoNot at all uncertain is director Dado’s ripe and raw staging of this showdown: Unlike the plot, edgy acting and flamboyant clashes spark success in all six “simpatico” players.

Screen star and founding member Michael Shannon (Memphis Belle, Premium Rush, Man of Steel, Boardwalk Empire) plays the initially dominant Lyle Carter, who travels from Midway, Kentucky, where he’s a bigass honcho in thoroughbred racing, to Cucamonga, California to help a former friend who holds some threatening secrets. Carter, an imperious mover and shaker, is strangely vulnerable in the presence of putative loser Vinnie Webb (fellow founding member Guy Van Swearingen of The Opponent), a sad sack who eventually makes big.

Vinnie is Carter’s former partner in a blackmailing scheme that destroyed the career of racing official Simms (the hilariously mannered Doug Vickers). Simms had caught onto the scammers’ race-fixing and horse-switching schemes. Carter got away with the frame-up, but instead of rewarding Vinnie for taking some scandalous photos, he took off with his prized Buick and his tarty wife Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom, reinventing the salacious shimmy), moving to Kentucky where he now swanks it up with the Churchill Downs crowd on Derby Day. That leaves moping, Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema LA review of Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico” – A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicagodrinking Vinnie, who sees himself as a ghost who didn’t die, to fester with his memories and some potentially dangerous photos. An old score, it seems, has yet to be settled.

Vinnie has fallen for lovable Cecilia (played by Mierka Girten as a broken bimbo) who he met at a Safeway and to whom he gave incriminating photos while posing as a dick. This leads Carter to Cecilia, who he bribes to shake down Simms, now a “blood line” racing enthusiast who vastly prefers quadrupeds to bipeds, especially since they’re much more duplicitous. Like Vinnie before him, Simms falls hard for Cecilia: His utterly inept courtship is as funny a farcical spoof of human weakness as Shepard has ever delivered to a delighted crowd.

Yet for all the rapid-fire, cross-country traveling in which these characters endure to connect, nothing happens with this simmering swindle, mostly because the scandal happened 15 years before. No ruse here seems threatening, particularly since Simms is not out for revenge and the statute of limitations on Carter’s crimes has worn off Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema LA review of Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico” – A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicagoanyway.

So we’re left with a huge improbability when Vinnie, newly confident in Van Swearingen’s perfect take, returns to his seedy California dump, only to find the previously panicky Carter prostate with – what? – accumulated guilt, contagious defeat, plot fatigue – you name it because it’s not explained. The loose cannon is now a busted popgun.

With Shannon disintegrating as magnificently as he bullied earlier in the play, his Carter is at the end of his proverbial tether, while Vinnie, who always faked being a detective, has fallen in love with the power he gets from unsupervised surveillance. Anyway, the friends’ implausible 180 degree tumble-and-switch from arrogance and hubris seems to be Shepard’s payoff for two hours and forty minutes of a plot that goes nowhere.

We’re left with Dado’s kinetic depiction of tested loyalties, and a crackling series of pugilistic character crashes. For Shepard or Shannon fans, that may be enough. But for those seeking a compelling plot, it isn’t.

photos by Michael Brosilow

A Red Orchid Theatre
scheduled to end on August 25, 2013
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