Shock waves rippled through the theater world last year when a top producer was unable to put together the capitalization for a Broadway production of Sam Shepard's new play, despite commitments from Ed Harris and Beverly D'Angelo to star. But after finally seeing the play, in Shepard's own staging and with his leading players intact, one can only empathize with those whose reaction to this script was to hide the wallet.

Shock waves rippled through the theater world last year when a top producer was unable to put together the capitalization for a Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s new play, despite commitments from Ed Harris and Beverly D’Angelo to star. But after finally seeing the play, in Shepard’s own staging and with his leading players intact, one can only empathize with those whose reaction to this script was to hide the wallet.

For one who teethed on Shepard’s direct, raw confrontational rock ‘n’ roll plays and happily entered the worlds of his more mature works — plays like “Buried Child” and “True West” that retained a fiery verbal edge while overlaying the action with enigma and menace as Shepard’s vision of America grew darker — it’s been disheartening to watch this writer spin further and further out from the dramatic center.

“A Lie of the Mind,” his last full-length work, was produced nearly 10 years ago, and it was a muddle. It was also extravagantly overpraised, virtually ensuring that the playwright would find it ever more difficult to do the work on his scripts that needed to be done.

The result is “Simpatico,” a rambling, enervating series of dialogues that meanders across nearly three hours, arriving nowhere and having sucked all the air out of the room.

The central figures are Carter (Harris) and Vinnie (Fred Ward), ex-partners in the racing trade who split up 15 years ago after saving their hides from prosecution in a race-fixing scheme only by blackmailing a racing commissioner (James Gammon) in a sex scandal. In the aftermath, Carter ended up with Vinnie’s boozy wife, Rosie (D’Angelo), not to mention his prized ’58 Buick and the good life — while Vinnie became a fringe-dweller.

That’s history, its revelations dealt like cards throughout the evening as Carter travels from the rarefied environs of Churchill Downs to the seedy outskirts of Los Angeles and other unsavory environs in the mistaken belief that he will help Vinnie out of a jam. To the extent that the power continuously shifts among these players, and that by the end Carter and Vinnie will appear to have switched roles, “Simpatico” is haunted by Shepard’s strongest later work, notably “True West” and “Fool for Love.” And Harris creates a compelling portrait of a man unraveling from the necktie down.

But from the disintegrating box of evidence carted around by Vinnie’s girlfriend Cecilia (Marcia Gay Harden) to the mock language of male camaraderie (“She still got those tits that sit up like little puppy dogs ‘n’ bark at ya?”), too much of this material veers perilously close to Christopher Durang’s Shepard parody playing out at the Manhattan Theater Club uptown.

Worse, it’s all been staged by Shepard with too much reverence for the sound of his own words, on a nearly barren Loy Arcenas set, morosely lit by Anne Militello.

“Who was it who decided to do away with all the plots?” a character asks, as the plotlines of “Simpatico” grow fuzzier and fuzzier. In a workshop, the staging might have led to some interesting explorations; as a full production, it’s dreary and unaffecting. In an interview, Shepard said much of “Simpatico” was written on a car seat in short bursts while driving the interstate between the coasts. Maybe next time a desk?

Simpatico

Production

NEW YORK A New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of a play in three acts (two intermissions) written and directed by Sam Shepard.

Crew

Sets, Loy Arcenas; costumes, Elsa Ward; lighting, Anne Militello; sound, Tom Morse; original music, Patrick O'Hearn; production stage manager, Ruth Kreshka; general management, 101 Prods. Ltd. Producer, George C. Wolfe; managing director, Jason Steven Cohen; associate producers, Rosemarie Tichler, Kevin Kline. Opened Nov. 14, 1994, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/Newman Theater. Reviewed Nov. 11; 299 seats; $ 35 . Running time: 2 HOURS,50 MIN.

With

Carter ... Ed Harris Vinnie ... Fred Ward Cecilia ... Marcia Gay Harden Simms ... James Gammon Kelly ... Welker White Rosie ... Beverly D'Angelo
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