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Michael Shannon returns to the small Chicago Off-Loop theater he co-founded. logo
Guy Van Swearingen and Michael Shannon in Simpatico
(© Michael Brosilow)
Was Michael Shannon smiling? The tall, square-jawed actor was performing in a 77-seat Off-Loop theater, and as he turned his back to the audience, those of us on the side could see a smile of enjoyment flicker across his face. Or perhaps Shannon didn't break character, not even for a nanosecond, and it was my imagination.

Certainly, he had a lot to smile about. The Oscar-nominated actor, praised for his Broadway and off-Broadway work, was back working with longtime colleagues at A Red Orchid, the small theater he cofounded 20 years ago. When the troupe was founded he still was a theater student at Northwestern University, and many theater-goers (myself among them) vividly remember his debut performances as a still-gangly 19-year-old.

Now fully formed as an actor, Shannon is a master of alluring eccentricity able to shift on a dime from the most intense menace to puppy-dog vulnerability. At A Red Orchid, he is appearing in Sam Shepard's mid-1990s Simpatico, a quirky comedy of dark souls who aren't as bright as they think. It's perfect for Shannon's talents.

Set in California and Kentucky, Simpatico centers on Carter (Shannon) and Vinnie (A Red Orchid cofounder Guy Van Swearingen), who 15 years earlier set up a sex sting to bring down a horse-racing commissioner for reasons Shepherd doesn't make clear. In the process, Carter stole Vinnie's wife, Rosie, who was the sting bait. Carter has enjoyed an enriching career in the thoroughbred racing biz, setting up the fallen commish with a name change and a minor livelihood and supporting Vinnie with monthly checks. Living in squalor on the edge of the California desert, Vinnie summons Carter on a pretext and threatens to bring him down, after all these years, with a boot-box full of incriminating photos, videos, and letters from the sting.

At first, Carter is controlling and patronizing but he becomes fearful when Vinnie flies to Kentucky, where Carter lives, to pedal his evidence to the commish and to woo back Rosie. The great improbability of the play is precisely why Carter would let Vinnie do this, but he does it mainly so playwright Shepard can give Simpatico an X-shaped structure with Vinnie ascending as Carter descends.

Despite his bravado and surface confidence, Carter is insecure in the face of Vinnie's actions and quickly melts into a hungover, quivering mess on the floor of Vinnie's shabby digs. Vinnie comes up empty in his effort to woo Rosie and sell the commish evidence that would vindicate him, but Carter doesn't know this. Curiously, Vinnie finds his unexpected defeat liberating. The monkey is finally off his back since his carefully preserved evidence is useless.

This is a comedy in part because we — the audience — are much better people than either Carter of Vinnie, neither of whom have teeth to back his bluster. We laugh at them, not with them. It's easy to do with Shephard's richly colorful and unexpectedly droll language, and sure-handed direction by Dado (another longtime colleague of A Red Orchid).

The bottom line is that Shannon, Van Swearingen, and their colleagues are having a great reunion on that little stage in Chicago's Old Town 'hood in this entertaining but slight Shepard play. They don't sacrifice the play or exaggerate too much, but their enjoyment comes through to the audience almost by osmosis. In Act II, Shannon and Van Swearingen have a baggy-pants slapstick routine as Vinnie tries to help Carter — in full meltdown — put on his pants. It's a delight, and a facet of Shannon's work his movie fans would not expect.

Supporting the two leads are Doug Vickers as fallen commissioner Simms, in superb comic mode combining flourishes of Sidney Greenstreet and Victor Buono. The women's roles, underwritten by male-centric Shephard, are swiftly but deeply etched by Jennifer Engstrom as slatternly Rosie, and Mierka Girten as Cecilia, Vinnie's erstwhile girlfriend whom Carter draws into the plot to no particular effect. Kristin E. Ellis is fine in the small role of Rosie and Carter's au pair.

Simpatico continues at A Red Orchid through August 25. Buy tickets early: With Shannon as a draw, shows are selling out in this small house.