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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Maybe you'd be better off in Europe. What do you think? Did you ever think of Europe? We could set you up over there. Some little obscure village tucked away in Austria, maybe. — Carter
What am I gonna do tucked away in Austria? Ski? Yodel, maybe? — Vinnie
P Guy Van Swearingen and Michael Shannon (photo credit: Richard Termine)
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 Red Orchid Theatre starring Michael Shannon (one of the company's former resident actors). 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 of the more lauded Shepard plays 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. They nevertheless won't drift into disinterest during the two and one half hours it takes to course through the blackmail, revenge, strained loyalties and the back-stabbing world of thoroughbred horse-racing. The play maintains a vivid and haunting vision of reality in the hands of director Dado.

The single named director Dado, who is also a Red Orchid Theatre ensemble member, keeps a firm control on the play's calculated buildup of suspense. The staging is, however, over-choreographed with props consigned to fall from the rafters. Also the scene changes are distractingly busy.

The plot revolves around a successful, if shady, wheeler-dealer 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 pleasure is derived from performances that make the most of Shepard's spiky 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 potboiler.

Vinnie, the unpredictable cohort who has never been able to come to terms with that particular scam, is terrifically portrayed by 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.

Cecilia's hippie hair-do and garb don't detract from Girten's amusing performance or her own very different version of her relationship with Vinnie. Rosie(a wonderfully sluttish Jennifer Engstrom), Vinnie's ex girl friend and now Carter's drug-besotted wife and a party in the original scam is thrown into the mix; so is Simms (and 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, simpatico is a perfect 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, 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, however, overbearing.

Most importantly Simpatico is an opportunity to see a lesser but still eminently worthy work from one of our best American playwrights. It resonates with a recurring Shepard-ian theme: the power-shifting in family and friends and the unexpected salvation and unpredictable freedom that comes with it.

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Simpatico by Sam Shepard
Directed by Dado

Cast: Michael Shannon (Carter), Guy Van Swearingen (Vinnie), Mierka Girten (Cecelia), John Judd (Simms), Kristin E. Ellis (Kelly), Jennifer Engstrom (Rosie)
Set Design: Grant Sabin
Costume Design: Christine Pascual
Lighting Design: Mike Durst
Sound Design: Joe Court
Production Stage Manager: Christa van Baale
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center
91 University Place, Princeton, N.J.
(609) 258 - 2787
Tickets: $25.00 - $96.50 From 09/08/17 Opened 09/15/17 Ends 10/15/17
Review by Simon Saltzman based on Sat. matinee performance 09/16/17

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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