McCarter Theatre Center didn't bring Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre's production of Simpatico to Princeton to honor late playwright Sam Shepard, who died in July, but that's what the timing implies. Sadly, director Dado's 2013 staging doesn't rise to the duty thrust upon it.
Here's hoping theaters will resurrect Shepard's seldom-seen early plays in his honor. (The Tooth of Crime, anyone? Angel City? Suicide in B Flat? There's Fringe Festival gold in his early catalog.) Meanwhile, Simpatico (1993) offers fans of his most-produced works—True West, Fool for Love, and Buried Child—an opportunity to revel in Shepard's intense characters and idiosyncratic dialogue, but in a story that falls flat.
Michael Shannon plays Carter, summoned from Kentucky horse country to old partner Vinnie's (Guy Van Swearingen) seedy motel room in Cucamonga, California. Down-and-out Vinnie has something on well-to-do Carter — their continuing relationship is, says Vinnie, "a lot like a marriage.” Secrets spill out in classic Shepard tough-guy speak, played with rat-a-tat veracity by these long-term collaborators who co-founded A Red Orchid Theatre 25 years ago. Vinnie holds the evidence of their crimes as insurance, but, complicating matters, Carter stole Vinnie's wife Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom) — and Vinnie's Buick, which he misses more.
The action meanders from there, with Carter visiting Vinnie's estranged girlfriend Cecilia (Mierka Girten) to reconcile them. Carter, however, enlists Cecilia for his own purposes. Vinnie steals Carter's wallet and heads for Kentucky, confronting racing commissioner Simms (John Judd) and then surprising Rosie, who participated in their plot.
The characters are vivid, played with conviction, and staged with flair, but no amount of sexy lighting, loud rock music, and cute entrances from lighting catwalks can add clarity and focus to characters who lack purpose. Simpatico unfolds almost entirely in two-person scenes, each of which feels like a separate play tenuously connected to the rest. When we finally return to Vinnie's Cucamonga motel room, he and Carter have essentially swapped identities (echoing True West's battling brothers), but we're uncertain how. More importantly, we're not sure why we should care.