Review: “Simpatico”

RECOMMENDED

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
When: through September 15
Tickets: $30-$40
Phone: 312-943-8722

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Of all the familiar Sam Shepard themes that resonate in his 1994 “Simpatico,” none is more potent than the inevitability that a past filled with secrets will poison the present, resulting in a reversal of fortune. Add the certainty that betrayal and power games are standard practice between so-called best friends, and the play provides a dark and stormy evening at the tiny A Red Orchid Theatre, especially since Dado’s direction goes for bizarre extremes.

The big selling point for the company is that founding member Michael Shannon, a star with “Revolutionary Road” (Academy Award nomination), “Man of Steel,” and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” under his belt, has returned to home base for the summer. He plays Carter, a successful horse-racing honcho who lives in a mansion in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife, Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom). But he’s been summoned to rundown Cucamonga, California, by his old buddy, Vinnie (Guy Van Swearingen), who’s been living in squalor and passing himself off as a private detective.

In an elaborately plotted piece that at times defies comprehension, Vinnie tells Carter, who has been bailing him out financially and otherwise for fifteen years, that he has an emergency involving a woman, Cecilia (Mierka Girten), who has had him arrested for harassment (and other things). He wants Carter’s help with her and claims he’s in love.

But there’s a lot more going on here. Fifteen years earlier, Carter and Vinnie were con-artist partners who concocted a scheme to make a killing at the racetrack by switching horses (it’s complicated!). When a slightly shady, very horny racing official, Simms (Doug Vickers), got wind of their illegal activities, they framed him with Rosie’s help, catching him with his pants down (literally) and ruining his career. Carter later helped Simms change his name, relocate, and start a business to keep him quiet, but Vinnie has been chafing under the deal he made for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Rosie was his girl before Carter married her — and added insult to injury by taking off in Vinnie’s beloved 1958 Buick.

Now Vinnie wants to make a clean break with the past. He has a box of photos and letters that are proof of his and Carter’s crimes, but it’s not entirely clear what he proposes to do with them. Carter offers to buy them, but as tensions between the two mount and old resentments emerge, that’s not enough. Vinnie even suggests that Carter turn himself in to the authorities. Then he tries to peddle his evidence to Simms and then to Rosie, while the increasingly desperate Carter attempts to foil these efforts, even as he’s falling apart emotionally and physically.

Dado has her ensemble pull out all the stops to maximize the black comedy, but it works imperfectly. Shannon brilliantly crafts an erratic character given to outbursts of anger alternating with attempts at reason, but he peaks a little too early and spirals downward too quickly. Still, watching his antics on the floor with a blanket after he’s ensconced himself in Vinnie’s apartment is priceless.

Van Swearingen’s balding Vinnie, with his smaller frame, nervous demeanor, and bad comb-over, is nearly perfect as the loser who brings his adversary down but doesn’t get what he wanted along the way. Girten’s Cecilia, an aging hippie pressed into service by Carter as a go-between, cunningly combines ditzy innocence and dizzyingly rapid-fire patter with inklings of insight. The scene between her and Vickers’ lascivious Simms, who is trying to maintain some self-control, is delicious and laden with double entendre. Rounding out the ensemble is Engstrom, whose barracuda-like Rosie is not the woman Vinnie remembers or Carter married, and Kristin E. Ellis as her interference-running assistant, Kelly.

Grant Sabin’s set has to cover a lot of bases from posh Lexington to squalid Cucamonga, and that’s hard to do on an acting space that’s wide but has little depth and nothing in the way of wings. Projections signal scene changes, but the staging is pretty rudimentary. Well-chosen music helps, as do a few hilarious props, among them the lunchbox-size “cell” phone Carter pulls out of his suitcase.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “Simpatico” is that it represents the first time A Red Orchid has tackled Sam Shepard. The playwright and the ensemble are so well-suited to each other than it shouldn’t be the last.