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There's something both thrilling and frustrating about A Red Orchid's production of Sam Shepard's horse-racing revenge comedy Simpatico, though the thrills outweigh the frustration. It's an undeniable pleasure, on a muggy July evening, to sweat alongside a set of idiosyncratic, immensely talented artists working at the top of their collective game, their shared history and familiarity adding immeasurable richness to their work. If only it came in the service of a play that better deserved it.
The chief conflict in Shepard's noirish 1994 work is between old frenemies Carter (Michael Shannon) and Vinnie (Guy Van Swearingen), who 15 years earlier pulled off a horse-racing con by setting up a racing commissioner for blackmail. In the plot's aftermath, Carter ran off with Vinnie's wife, Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom, delicious in her single scene), and is now living the high life in Kentucky. Vinnie, left behind in California, gets financial support from Carter but is barely subsisting on a diet of whiskey, bluster and fake identities. But Vinnie still has one piece of collateral in his possession—the incriminating photos of the commissioner—and sets out to reverse his fortune.
It's presumably Shannon's recent celebrity that had Simpatico's entire run essentially sold out before it opened (tickets are now completely gone, but you can try for standby), and the actor delivers in a role that has him ranging from urbane and authoritative, lording it over Van Swearingen's Vinnie in the opening scene, to eventually writhing on the floor in his underwear, just like it was the good old days. Van Swearingen, like Shannon a founding member of the theater, puts in an equally full-bodied performance with a contrary trajectory.
Other longtime ensemble members turn in similarly compelling turns, full of bewitching choices. In addition to Engstrom's vampy Rosie, Mierka Girten is terrifically, weirdly guileless as an acquaintance of Vinnie's who Carter tries to make use of. And Doug Vickers is winning as the blackmail victim whose life was ruined but chose rebirth over revenge. Vickers plays the eccentric as a sort of zen James Lipton.
And yet for all of these watchable performances, and all of Shepard's crackling dialogue—Rosie tells Vinnie she didn't recognize him until she heard "something in the voice—a kind of apologetic menace"—Simpatico feels meandering and rather pallid, a shadow of the playwright's more muscular works. Carter and Vinnie experience a reversal, as is common for pairs of male characters in Shepard's plays. But here it's neither explained nor earned; Vinnie doesn't gain anything he's after and Carter doesn't lose anything he has at stake, but their power shifts almost as a matter of course.
Shepard presumably intended the title Simpatico as a bit of irony—every relationship in the play is just about the opposite. But in A Red Orchid's production, it's the simpatico ensemble energy, not the play itself, that's worth taking in.