Sam Shepard’s death in late July was “a stunning personal loss to all of us who knew him and a devastating loss for the theater,” said Artistic Director Emily Mann. Months earlier, the McCarter Theatre Center had scheduled Shephard’s Simpatico to open its 2017-2018 season, and the production has been dedicated to him. Running through October 15, it originated with Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre. It’s directed by Red Orchid’s Dado and retains much of the Windy City cast.
Fifteen years before the story begins, two longtime friends from Cucamonga, California, conspired to fix horse races. A prominent racing official tumbled to their scam, and they silenced him by threatening to reveal photos proving a particularly degraded sexual liaison, details of which are left to the audience’s imagination. One friend, Vinnie, still lives in California in squalor and an alcoholic haze, supported by his friend Carter, now a successful Kentucky horseman. Though they are tied together by the past and its criminal secrets, there’s bad blood between them, too, mostly because Carter stole Vinnie’s wife Rosie.
When the play starts, down-and-outer Vinnie (played by Guy Van Swearingen) has called Carter (Michael Shannon) in a panic, and Carter flies to California to try to calm him down. It seems the trouble is a woman Vinnie met, Cecelia (Mierka Girten), who has had Vinnie arrested. It takes quite a while to get the story out of Vinnie, because it keeps changing and because Vinnie’s preoccupation with Rosie keeps bubbling up. Carter agrees to help Vinnie with Cecilia, and when he meets her, Vinnie’s lies become apparent.
Vinnie learns that the former racing official (John Judd) is living quietly in Kentucky with his equine pedigree charts—another beneficiary of Carter’s guilt-money. Vinnie flies there with his shoebox full of blackmail pictures and offers them for sale. What was scandalous pornography some years ago is pale stuff now, and the wonderfully garrulous official isn’t interested. Nor is Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom).
The lines crackle along, and many are laugh-out-loud funny, despite the lies and deceit everywhere and the intensifying power struggle between Vinnie and Carter. Van Swearingen and Shannon play their relationship in a way that you may alternately sympathize with and loathe first one then the other. Girten is sweet cluelessness itself (“Why didn’t you tell me the Kentucky Derby is in May?”), and Engstrom’s Rosie is her polar opposite. Judd is so comfortable in his role as the racing official, he might have been recruited direct from a back room at Churchill Downs.
Shepard intended this play in part to be an homage to film noir. Characters reference classics like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, and Vinnie often poses as a private eye. In perhaps the most illuminating line regarding his character, Vinnie tells Carter he enjoys his fake stake-outs so much because you can see everything about people’s lives, like “someone cutting someone else’s throat.” One way or another.
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