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Michael Shannon, Guy Van Swearingen, and A Red Orchid Theatre bring their production of the late Sam Shepard's 1994 play to McCarter Theatre.

Guy Van Swearingen and Michael Shannon star in Sam Shepard's Simpatico at McCarter Theatre Center.
(© Richard Termine)

First seen at A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago in 2013, director Dado's production of Sam Shepard's Simpatico comes to the McCarter Theatre on the heels of Shepard's death, thus giving his 1994 drama an extra significance it didn't have four years ago. The most noteworthy thing about this production, however, is its lack of overt reverence toward the late playwright. This Simpatico is, quite simply, a frequently hilarious good time: a sustained shot of raucous black comedy that refuses to treat Shepard's text as some kind of gleaming monument, but as a living, breathing entity from which to mine a wide variety of contrasting tones and moods.

Perhaps that's the best approach for one of Shepard's slighter works. Simpatico finds the playwright tackling some of his usual themes — macho rivalries, characters remaining stuck in the past, the falsity of the American dream — but this time through the lens of a '40s film noir, albeit with some pointed twists. Thus, Vinnie (Guy Van Swearingen) isn't actually a detective, he's just pretending to be one in order to impress Cecilia (Mierka Girten), a cashier at a local supermarket in Cucamonga, California.

By contrast, his former friend Carter (Michael Shannon) appears to be living the high life as a businessman in Kentucky, but in fact he's experiencing trouble in his own paradise with his wife, Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom), formerly Vinnie's wife and the play's shifty femme fatale figure. Above it all stands Simms (John Judd), a former horse-racing commissioner whom Vinnie, Carter, and Rosie conspired to successfully bring down 15 years ago, and who now lives a humbler existence in a lower position in the Kentucky Racing Commission, occasionally waxing nostalgically about how no one makes detective movies with compelling plots like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon anymore.

John Judd plays Simms, and Guy Van Swearingen plays Vinnie in Simpatico.
(© Richard Termine)

Simms's invocation of such classic noir touchstones tips us off to Shepard's strategy in Simpatico. To some degree, we're meant to be aware of how closely these characters conform to certain noir archetypes, as well as the degree to which Shepard has tweaked them to fit his thematic concerns. The downside of this approach is that we're also aware of how thin these characters are, at least compared with the richer characterizations found in similarly themed and plotted Shepard plays like True West and Buried Child. When we discover that Vinnie is engaged in a double-crossing scheme to try to screw over his old friend and get Rosie back, we feel less emotionally affected and more dryly bemused by it all.

Under Dado's direction, however, this turns out to be less of a drawback than it might have been. The director treats Simpatico as pitch-black farce, encouraging her actors to push the limits of caricature without fully losing touch of their inner desperate core of humanity. Michael Shannon shows off some astonishing physical-comedy chops as Carter, especially as his initial veneer of civility cracks by Act 3. Guy Van Swearingen gives Vinnie a thrillingly dangerous and unpredictable edge as Vinnie, shifting from melancholic desperation to ferocious anger on a dime. Jennifer Engstrom's overly exaggerated portrayal of Rosie sticks out like a sore thumb, while Mierka Girten, as Cecilia, finds a more convincing balance between down-to-earth pathos and flighty eccentricity. As the resigned yet forward-thinking Simms, John Judd provides an oasis of relative wisdom amid the mounting insanity surrounding him.

Vinnie (Guy Van Swearingen) desperately tries to win back Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom) in Simpatico.
(© Richard Termine)

Dado's most imaginative touch in her direction lies in her choice of classic '70s rock tunes (like the Rolling Stones and Neil Young) in between set changes. Simpatico takes place in 1994, but the production feels as suspended in a nostalgic haze as Vinnie still is 15 years after he helped bring down Simms. And Grant Sabin's economical set design — made up of three panels, one of Vinnie's messy apartment, another of Cecilia's place, the third of Simms's office — situates the action in everyday settings that deliberately exude no particular sense of time and place. These characters might evoke noir staples, but the sets, lighting, and costumes ground their exploits in drab realism.

Simpatico may not be peak Sam Shepard, but there are still pleasures aplenty to be had in seeing this talented cast and crew wrestle with his idiosyncratic vision of hard-luck Americana.

Simpatico, featuring Mierka Girten (left), Michael Shannon (center), and John Judd (right), runs at McCarter Theatre Center through October 15.
(© Richard Termine)