Red Orchid Theatre, a little company in Chicago, brings its production of the late, great Sam Shepard's Simpatico to McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. The show stars Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Man of Steel) as Carter, now rich, and Guy Van Swearingen as Vinny, now broke.
The play opens in a beat-up, dirty, laundry-strewn motel room in Cucamonga, Calif. There's a free-standing window frame with a crooked Venetian blind. There is loud pop music. This is the basic Shepard set to be filled by the basic Shepard set-up: two men, one rough, one polished, battling to — what? Not to the death, but not to resolution, either. There is betrayal. There is revenge. There is a catalog of stupid misunderstandings. It echoes True West, Shepard's best-known play, and Ages of the Moon, Shepard's least-known play.
But, whereas True West is intense and fierce as well as funny, this play, in this production, feels kind of goofy and off-kilter as all the old themes turn to jokes. Each scene in Simpatico seems to choose a different tone and style of acting, ranging from the parodic to the violent to the farcical. Everybody's voice, as well as body language, is loud, creating an over-the-top effect that seems to suggest meaning without actually achieving it. Dado directs, using much of McCarter's fancy stage machinery in amusing if pointless ways, as she has characters dance across the catwalk above the stage.
The plot, so to speak, revolves around a box of pornographic photos taken 15 years earlier to blackmail the Horse Racing Commissioner (John Judd), who was seduced into compromising positions by Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom), who was at the time Vinny's wife and then, later, Carter's. Cecelia (Mierka Girten), the current girlfriend, becomes the substitute bait, but unlike Rosie, she is naïve and/or "dumb as a post." These sordid characters elicit very little sympathy, but they aren't evil enough to be interesting. Where is the hilarious, heartbreaking menace that was the Shepard signature?
Judd rants about thoroughbred bloodlines as he laments the deterioration of "the sport of kings." Similarly, during a related nostalgic rant about old movies, he wonders, "Who was it decided to do away with plots?" A question that might be asked here as well, as motives and reactions and events seem, as the play goes on, more and more random.