Great acting not enough to save Sam Shepard’s flawed ‘Simpatico’

RICHARD TERMINE

Guy Van Swearingen, left, and Michael Shannon co-star in “Simpatico” at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, through Oct. 15.

I wanted to like “Simpatico,” which is playing at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Oct. 15. It features Tony- and Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon, and was written by Sam Shepard, who died in July. I was looking for an electrifying performance by Shannon in a play that represented a living, breathing testament to Shepard’s genius.

I didn’t quite get that. Yes, Shannon and other members of Chicago’s Red Orchid Theatre — this production is an import — are excellent. But I found the play itself unsatisfying. Shepard’s dialogue is sharp and his characters are colorful in this 1994 work (later made into a movie co-starring Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges and Sharon Stone). But his central premise is too ill-conceived for the play itself to become something meaningful.

The prosperous Carter, played by Shannon, and the poor, schlubby Vinnie, played by Gus Van Swearingen, are middle-aged men who have been friends since their childhood in Cucamonga, Calif. (where Vinnie still lives). Fifteen years ago, they were partners in crime, literally, blackmailing a race-horsing official with photos of him having an affair.

They got away with it. Carter later became a rich businessmen, and Vinnie became an abject failure. But Vinnie still owns the photos, so Carter pays him money to keep him quiet about it.

One other thing: Carter also stole Vinnie’s wife, Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom), away from him.

Jennifer Engstrom in “Simpatico.”

Carter wants to put the past behind him definitively — to buy the photos, and never see Vinnie again. But Vinnie resists. And the ancient power struggle between these two men is revived.

It’s all metaphorical, of course. Those photos represent Carter’s guilt, and, in a certain sense, what he is really is, at his core, despite his nice clothes and perfect haircut. But it doesn’t really make sense that the photos would give Vinnie any power. Who would still be interested in this old, tawdry crime, at this point? Even the racing official, Simms (John Judd), now living under another identity, shrugs when he hears about the photos’ existence.

Vinnie, for some unfathomable reason, is reinvigorated by all of this, and travels to Kentucky to try to reignite the spark between him and his boozy ex-wife, Rosie (played with scene-stealing outrageousness by Engstrom). Carter, meanwhile, stays behind in Vinnie’s horrific apartment (huh?) and befriends Cecilia (Mierka Girten), a supermarket clerk who may or may not be Vinnie’s girlfriend. Just like Carter and Vinnie are opposites, so are the demonic, world-weary Rosie and the angelic, innocent Cecilia.

Vinnie continues to take charge of his life, and Carter falls apart. Shannon pulls out all the stops, turning Carter into a real wreck, and a shell of the man he once was.

Maybe, for some people, that will be worth the price of admission. And, I have to admit, the Red Orchid Theatre has come up with some clever touches, like Simms dancing goofily while he strews dirty laundry — literally — around the stage at the start of the evening.

But there’s only so much you can do with a seriously flawed play. And that’s what, I believe, “Simpatico” is.

“Simpatico” will be at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Oct. 15; visit mccarter.org.

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