June 26, 1998
Two men competing with each other to see who can torture the other
more. Women standing commandingly in the background, watching the men deal
with the troubles they've caused. The modern West, abundant with
desolation, surrounding everyone - these are the things that make the plays
of Sam Shepard tick, and fans of his work will instantly recognize all
of these familiar traits in "Simpatico," his 1994 play, finely produced by
This play, in my opinion, isn't one of Shephard's best (it's not as
focused or powerful or novel as "True West", "Buried Child", "Fool For Love", or
"The Tooth of Crime"), but it's still good, inventive fun, nicely mixing
pop-culture with classic drama.
"Simpatico" marked Shepard's return to the stage after a near-ten year
hiatus, during which he wrote, directed, and acted in film. If there's one
thing made clear in this play, it's that the movies have heavily
influenced it. The play is film noir for the stage - Sam Shepard style.
All of the characters maintain the staple Shepard characteristics, but like
the characters in the great crime films of the 1940's and 1950's, the
people of "Simpatico" live in claustrophobic surroundings and are haunted
by pasts they cannot conceal.
The noir comes through in spades, and I have to credit director Frank
Hilgenberg for doing a fine job of establishing it. He has his actors
reveal their internal tensions in a way that creates a wonderful
sense of paranoia. Also, he sets up the stage in three descending levels
(an office, an efficiency apartment, and a sitting room, respectively) and
lights the play so that no one piece of the set is ever blacked out, which
hints that - as in noir - the story here is not just in the people but
in the places as well.
"Simpatico" tells the story of a rivalry between two men and the
emotional revenge one enacts on the other. Vinnie and
Carter are two old friends who once pulled a horse-racing scam involving
blackmailing and adultery. Fifteen years later, with Carter now successful
and Vinnie living on the skids, the scam is still with them, eating them
with guilt and regret. As the play moves on, one learns to accept his
crimes while the other falls prey to them.
The play begins with Vinnie asking Carter over to help him deal with a
woman he is interested in. The woman has had Vinnie arrested, and Vinnie
asks Carter to straighten things out. Carter, after much debate, agrees to
Vinnie's request, and from there, things grow complicated in ways I won't
even begin to describe. (Why spoil the fun, right?)
The plot twists aplenty, lots of hidden wounds resurface. It just
gets more and more complex, both plot-wise and emotionally, with every
All the performances are top rate, which is something I've come to
expect from Theater Downtown. Bill Orland, as Carter, particularly shines:
His southern drawl accentuates every word he says in just the right way,
giving his character a fantastic edge. Carter is pompous, intellectual,
sorrowful, humorous, and Orland portrays him wonderfully.
James Zelley, a Theater Downtown regular, gives a strong performance
as well. His Vinnie seems heavily based on the Ratso Rizzo character from
Midnight Cowboy - both whine a lot, have a particularly annoying New
York/New Jersey accent, aren't too bright but are smarter than people
conceive them to be, fool with people's minds, and are essentially noble
people. Zelley's Vinnie took me a little while to get used to,
particularly due to his seeming out of place, but about mid-way through the first
scene I clicked with him and was with him for the entire way.
Also noteworthy are Laura Harn, Ed Preiss, and Cynthia McClendon.
Harn makes Cecelia, the woman who has Vinnie arrested, into a person people
easily misread. She carries the facade of a complete flake, but there are
many moments where she hints at a past full of secrets - both good and bad -
and makes you wonder just how trustworthy she really is. Preiss, playing
Simms, the victim of the blackmailing scam from Vinnie and Carter's past,
has a sureness about him that, as the play continues, gains more and more
poise and depth. Simms is a man who has come to terms (for the most part,
at least) with his past and truly embodies that old belief: "What doesn't
kill you can only make you stronger." McClendon, as Rose, the object of
both Vinnie's and Carter's desires, has a domineering attitude to her that
makes her both fragile and dangerous.
If I have to fault anything about the production, it's the final
scene. For some reason, it distances itself from the audience all of a
sudden, and as a result, instead of a final scene of great emotional
impact, the play ends flatly. Perhaps this was the intention of the
production, I'm not sure. If it was, then I'm unclear as to the reasons for
it. I haven't read the play, so to be honest, I'm not sure if it's just the
way the play was written. But if there were one thing I would change about
this production, it would be this scene. It needs a more intimate delivery
with the audience to be taken at its full effect.
But don't let that dissuade you. This is a fine production by, in my
opinion, the best theater in Orlando. And if plot twists are your thing,
then you should head out immediately to see "Simpatico." You definitely
will have an evening well spent.
I am a fiction writer supporting myself as a government clerk for the US
army. Until I can fully live off writing, I plan to milk all the luxury I
can from the American taxpayer.
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