Sometimes it is good to have only the foggiest if also generally good memories of plays that you know that you have liked and only seen once before. Such is the case with recently deceased Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico,” which premiered in 1994 at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theatre. It has been resurrected by Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre starring the Oscar-nominated Michael Shannon (one of the company’s former resident actors), among its excellent cast.
It is that production that is now at the McCarter Theater as the opening play of the season. My memory serves me well as it remains, for the most part, a tantalizing and entertaining intrusion into the lives of old buddies and former partners with a past as scam artists.
Fans more familiar with the more lauded plays in Shepard’s canon such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child,” “True West,” and “Fool for Love” may not get the same bracing lift from the more problematic and enigmatic “Simpatico.” Nevertheless, you won’t be able to drift into disinterest during the two-and-a-half hours it takes to course your way through the blackmail, revenge, strained loyalties, and back-stabbing world of thoroughbred horse-racing. Except for a largely inscrutable resolve (unless you are in sync with Shepard’s oeuvre), the play maintains a vivid and haunting vision of reality in the hands of director Dado.
The single named Chicago-based Dado, who is also an ensemble member of A Red Orchid Theater, keeps a firm control on the play’s calculated buildup of suspense. The play’s staging is, however, over-choreographed with props consigned to fall from the rafters. The scene changes are distractingly busy.
The plot revolves around a successful, if shady, wheeler-dealer’s attempt to put a final fix on a contemptible incident in his past. This includes making a big cash payoff to his now neurotic, down-and-out ex-partner in crime.
Most of the pleasures of the play are derived from performances that make the most of Shepard’s snappy dialogue and subtle shifts in each character’s personality. This is the meat in a play that comes close to being a good example of the traditional pot-boiler.
Vinnie, the unpredictable cohort who has never been able to come to terms with that particular scam, is terrifically portrayed by a balding Guy Van Swearingen. Despite choosing to live in squalor and squandering the hush-money and gifts he receives from his former friend Carter (Michael Shannon), he also fancies himself a private detective and a ladies’ man. To this end, Vinnie has asked Carter to pay a visit to his new love interest, Cecilia (Mierka Girten), and help fix a complicated relationship that has gone sour. Carter agrees, although he is more interested in ending his relationship with Vinnie.
Whatever it is that Cecilia’s hippie hair-do and garb says about her, it doesn’t detract from Girten’s amusing performance or her own very different version of her relationship with Vinnie. Vinnie’s ex girl friend, Rosie (a wonderfully sluttish Jennifer Enstrom), and now Carter’s drug-besotted and scammer wife is thrown into the mix as is Simms (an excellent John Judd), the now incognito corrupt ex racing commissioner whose life they once ruined. Judd is unfortunately consigned to a silly bit of shtick atop an elevated walkway as prologue to the play.
Despite being weird and convoluted, the play is a show-offy showcase for Shannon (TV’s “Man of Steel” and “Boardwalk Empire”). His expertly manic and menacing performance is characterized by an always impending unpredictability.
The scenes move smoothly between Cucamonga and San Dimas, California, and Midway and Lexington, Kentucky, the latter where Carter lives in upper middle-class suburban comfort. Although the impressive set designed by Grant Sabin is calculated to reveal each location under the effective lighting designed by Mike Durst, it is overbearing.
More importantly in retrospect we have the opportunity to see a lesser, but still eminently worthy, work from one of the best of American playwrights. “Simpatico” resonates with a recurring Shepard-ian theme: the reversal of key roles and power-shifting in family and friends and the unexpected salvation and unpredictable freedom that comes with it.
Simpatico, McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through October 15. $25 to $97.50. 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org.