No Sure Thing

The best early Sam Shepard plays snort and kick like blood stallions—their energy feels raw, almost random; their plots are as screwy as their characters. Many later Shepard plays domesticate the horseplay—and horsepower—of his earlier imagery into well-made structures whose force increases with greater craft and control. Among living playwrights, only Shepard's early mentor, Edward Albee, can vie for how prolifically and profoundly he has remade the American stage. The Michael Chekhov Theater Company, founded by Michael Horn, is attempting the herculean task of presenting all 45 of Shepard's plays, within its inaugural year, in its new black-box space, the Little, Big Theater. Its efforts aren't as hopeless and slapdash as they may sound—most Shepard plays require minimal sets, and the company has been planning and rehearsing for two years already.

Among Shepard's 45 plays, however, a few don't measure up to his own uniquely high standards. Simpatico, written in 1994 when Shepard returned to the stage from his work in film, has too many spices stirred into the pot: its dramatic kick fizzles. The ingredients don't add up. Rather, we're given red herring soup. By the end, the expected wallop of revelation goes sour in the mouth.

Carter, a wealthy businessman in the horse-racing industry, visits his old pal Vinnie, a down-and-out loner who holds pictures and letters from Carter's sordid past. In the opening scene, Carter (Peter Picard) is desperate to protect his reputation, while Vinnie (Tom Pavey) grows increasingly manic attempting to re-establish a lost friendship.

Powerful undercurrents of jealousy and guilt seethe, since the two also share history with Rosie, who long ago eloped with Carter even though she was married to Vinnie at the time. The tension is as tight as a new-strung guitar string—the slightest movement from the actors playing Vinnie or Carter makes a visual and visceral music. Vinnie convinces Carter to go talk to his new girlfriend, Cecilia, who Vinnie claims is pressing charges against him, and Carter agrees once he suspects that Vinnie gave her some of the scandalous pictures.

From here, though, the plot never untangles itself to achieve the same taut level of suspense. The mystery of what the pictures and letters are about is never fully revealed. On the one hand, it is said that Carter, Vinnie, and Simms, a since-reformed fall guy in their scheme, once doctored the mouth tattoos on two racehorses. On the other hand, it is suggested that the photos show Simms in graphic sexual positions with the horses. Exactly how these two stories connect, though, left me befuddled.

Moreover, any—or all—of the characters may be compulsive liars. Since nobody can be trusted, the audience has no hope of figuring out the "real" motivations and events that compel the characters, and the initial force of the plot dissipates.

The play's subtext about each character's futile search for identity thus becomes as contradictory as Matlock putting an epistemologist on the stand who says that none of us can ever reconstruct the past through mere artifacts or identify its causal chains, if there are any. Such limits to knowledge may be true enough for relativist history professors to be mindful of, but without the ability to discover significant clues—without the hope that there is some truth, the gripping mystery of a dramatic plot dies.

Regardless, the fine acting and crisp direction (by Ann Bowen) of the production make it, if not entirely compelling, at least a worthwhile evening of theater. Picard skillfully transforms Carter from a smooth, glad-handing businessman into a shaking alcoholic schlub. Likewise, Pavey's riveting depiction of Vinnie's tissue of lies deconstructs his character like crumbling onion skins so that nothing remains of it by the end.

Gary Lamadore, playing Simms, is convincingly hermetic as he alternates between wry, worldly understatement and overblown confession. Alison Costine similarly manages to conceal the true nature of her character, Cecilia; at first appearing ditzy, she later hints that this may be a deceptive act.

Though the portrayal of these deeply flawed characters displays nuance and force, it cannot overcome the deep flaw in the play's structure. Shepard implicitly acknowledges going against the grain of the detective genre by referencing classic film noir. In fact, Simms sighs and says "wise decision" when Vinnie tells him he stopped going to the movies—they don't make 'em that way anymore.

For all the fascinating unraveling of ultimate motives, the audience becomes confused and frustrated from never hitting the pay dirt of sudden illumination. Instead, the last image of a cell phone ringing unanswered seems emblematic of the unanswered questions that audience members must confront as they leave. Perhaps Shepard intended the play to show the messy cloud of questions we must confront in real life. If so, the play may find few who are "simpatico" in its audiences.

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