Guy Van Swearingen and Michael Shannon
Guy Van Swearingen and Michael Shannon Credit: Michael Brosilow

“Behind every great fortune,” Honore de Balzac is supposed to have said but didn’t (what he actually said was nowhere near as pithy), “is a great crime.” In Simpatico, Sam Shepard posits a corollary: that sometimes the great crime amounts to nothing more than a sleazy scam.

His case in point concerns Carter, a child of the less glamorous inland precincts of southern California, where the aerospace job boom of the 1960s yielded the Superfund cleanup sites of the ’80s. At some point during the transition from prosperity to toxicity, Carter and his lifelong buddy, Vinnie, were making their living at the racetrack, buying and selling thoroughbreds in claiming races. Then they had an idea: Why not switch fast horses for similar-looking slow ones and make a killing when the supposed plodder beats the odds? The glitch came when they were found out by an honest track official named Simms. Well, honest and horny. They ruined Simms by putting a woman in his way and snapping pictures of the results.

Now, 15 years later, Carter has moved to Kentucky and established himself as a major player in the bluegrass racing industry. Back in Rancho Cucamonga, California, meanwhile, Vinnie has become a lonely alcoholic who styles himself a private detective, pines for his long-lost 1958 Buick, and—in Guy Van Swearingen’s portrayal for the current A Red Orchid Theatre production—sports a comb-over that absurdly fails to reach all the way across the top of his head. Poor Vinnie can’t even do gauche right.

He does have one asset, though: a shoebox full of letters and photographic negatives that implicate Carter in the Simms frame-up. Vinnie’s belated attempt to expose the sleazy scam behind his old pal’s great fortune is the engine that drives Simpatico.

Shepard has dealt with track culture before, sort of. His 1974 Geography of a Horse Dreamer is a low-down variation on D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” about a young man who’s held prisoner by mobsters because he can predict the outcome of races. But Simpatico, which premiered in 1994, doesn’t have the hallucinatory poetics of Horse Dreamer or Shepard’s other, iconic earlier plays. Stylistically, it’s more of a noir-inflected black comedy a la Elmore Leonard’s roughly contemporaneous Get Shorty—the difference being a considerably heavier emphasis on the blackness than the comedy. For all its oddball characters, its neat one-liners, there’s a deadly serious struggle at the heart of Simpatico. It’s the same one Shepard examined, explosively, a decade and a half earlier, in True West, where estranged brothers Austin and Lee turn vicious over a movie script. For that matter, it’s the same one the Bible examines in Genesis, when Jacob makes his grab for Esau’s birthright. Carter and Vinnie are two souls—or maybe, as has been suggested, two parts of a single soul—playing a zero-sum game, the one trying to hold onto all the things he cheated and stole to get, the other trying to recover all the things he worked just as tirelessly to lose. We don’t get the comprehensive list of what those things are until near the end, yet, thanks to Shepard’s incredibly deft writing, we know in our bones that we should dread finding out.

With its predilection for grit and wit, not to mention such self-evidently Shepard-appropriate ensemble members as Van Swearingen and Michael Shannon, A Red Orchid Theatre seems like the ideal home for this script. In fact, it’s a little shocking to check the company’s past seasons and find that Simpatico represents its very first foray into the playwright’s oeuvre. The results, however, are mixed.

Shannon and his wife, Kate Arrington, have worked it out so that each of them is appearing in a Chicago stage production this summer—Arrington doing Belleville at Steppenwolf Theatre, Shannon playing Carter here—and the Boardwalk Empire star’s burgeoning career has made his return to AROT a hotly anticipated event. Yet he comes off as tone-deaf, too often resorting to a cartoonish exasperation that gets reactive laughs but doesn’t serve Shepard’s dark ends. Carter’s fate consequently registers as a contrivance: artistic symmetry as opposed to gut truth. Oddly enough, I just saw Shannon as the villain in the 2012 action movie Premium Rush, doing the same thing to the same effect. Maybe he needs to spend some more time onstage.

The other significant weak spot in Dado’s production is the playing area, which is too wide and shallow for practically anything, but especially for the needs of this tale. Still there are significant compensations. Van Swearingen gives us an archetypal shlimazel in Vinnie. Doug Vickers is delightfully eccentric as courtly, lost Simms. And Jennifer Engstrom is nothing short of magnificent in her turn as Rosie, one of the things Vinnie lost along with his Buick.