Losers and Laughs

Simpatico may be the funniest play about losers in Sam Shepard's entire prolific output. Long before we meet them, these characters have lost the loves of their lives, aged without grace, and in some cases suffered devastating reversals of fortune. In the course of the play, some suffer even more. They get up only to be knocked down again. And yet it would be wrong to call their story a tragedy.

Originally staged at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York in 1994, Simpatico takes a number of familiar Shepard themes -- loyalty, isolation, troubled bloodlines -- and remakes them into something akin to a jazz improvisation on the theme of human disillusionment. A tired rehash? Not exactly. Here the playwright is working on a small scale. Instead of weaving myths out of American family structures, as in Buried Child or Fool For Love, Shepard in Simpatico gathers up the less obvious rhythms of his characters' lives and plays out their possibilities.

At the Florida Shakespeare Theatre, where it has opened as the centerpiece of the annual Contemporary Writers Series, a new production of Simpatico percolates on the strength of a (mostly) crackerjack cast. It's vigorously directed by Darrell Larson, fresh from steering a program of Shepard one-acts in New York. Larson also stars in Simpatico as Carter.

That would be Lyle Carter, a veteran of the Thoroughbred horse-racing business. Carter lives in Louisville, Kentucky, home of the Derby. And, as Larson plays him, he appears to have been born to the mint julep. He has what his friend Vinnie (John Diehl) describes as "a yuppie Protestant aura." If we didn't first meet him in Vinnie's rundown apartment, we might be hard-pressed to identify Carter as a hustler.

Make that a former hustler. The play opens some 15 years after Vinnie and Carter have pulled off a major scam. It's not clear at first what transpired (details emerge in dribs and drabs), but it is apparent that Vinnie somehow took the fall for Carter. Now Carter belongs to a Louisville country club while Vinnie lives a lowlife existence in Cucamonga, California.

As the play opens, Vinnie is calling in a favor. He has summoned Carter to Cucamonga to help him with a potential girlfriend, Cecilia, who has had Vinnie arrested for harassment, trespassing, and invasion of privacy. Something went wrong, Vinnie says, after he told her he was a private investigator: "All I was doing was trying to impress her. That's all. I might have gone a little overboard with the gun and the handcuffs, but I wasn't trying to hurt her."

Carter, however, is more interested in the fact that Vinnie gave the woman some photographs. The pictures document the scam that propelled Vinnie and Carter into their current life situations. Carter agrees to talk to Cecilia (Kim Ostrenko) in hopes of persuading her that Vinnie is really a nice guy. "Tell her how we used to swap those two geldings around," suggests the desperate Vinnie, reminding Carter of their racetrack days, when they made their living fixing races by substituting ringers for Thoroughbreds.

Nothing goes as planned, however. When Carter arrives at Cecilia's, he learns she didn't have Vinnie arrested after all, though we're uncertain who is stretching the truth -- Cecilia or Vinnie. Meanwhile, Vinnie has left his squalid apartment and gone to Louisville in search of Simms (Bill Hindman), the California racing commissioner he and Carter blackmailed (with the mysterious photos) years earlier to keep him from exposing their scam. Simms has resurfaced and now runs a bloodstock agency, studying Thoroughbred bloodlines for breeders. He's changed his name to Ames. When Ames calls to say that Vinnie has visited him, Carter realizes Vinnie is going to sell the negatives back to Ames. Before long he's dispatched Cecilia to make a better offer for the negatives. By this time Vinnie has gone to Carter's Louisville house to see his ex-wife Rosie, whom Carter stole from him years earlier.

If all this sounds more like The Big Sleep than a Sam Shepard play, it's because Simpatico is the closest thing Shepard has written to a film noir. "Double Indemnity, Maltese Falcon. Pictures you could sink your teeth into," says Ames when Vinnie shows up at his Louisville office claiming to be a gumshoe. And like Maltese Falcon, Simpatico is a story the plot of which is confusing because, as it rolls along, it keeps picking up more complications. It's easy to forget where one character's motivation ends and another's begins. But none of that really matters.

What matters is that Sam Shepard still writes great parts for actors. At the center of Simpatico is Carter, the closest thing here to a traditional Shepard hero. Carter begins the play in a good position on the track, so to speak. By the end he's literally traded places with Vinnie. Exhausted and drunk, he falls into the bed in Vinnie's apartment, where he has a breakdown. Vinnie, on the other hand, has gotten out of bed and marched off to deal with Ames and confront his ex-wife. If that's less than a thrilling reversal, well, Shepard fans will recognize this device is a retread of what happens to the brothers in True West.

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