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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.

Shepard is not really interested in the angst and underlying fear that drive these characters. He's addressed those issues long ago in earlier plays. In Simpatico he's exercising old themes of loyalty and betrayal in fresh characters, watching as they go round and round, jockeying for position, never really getting ahead. In the hands of a less talented playwright, a racetrack metaphor would come off as forced and shallow. But Shepard isn't making a Big Point -- he's not saying that life is a horse race. Indeed, if you had to reduce Simpatico's theme to one sentence, it would be something as commonplace as "What goes around, comes around."

The most compelling parts of the play occur when disparate characters meet up with each other. If the play were darker, their interactions might be unsettling. Instead they're often hilarious. When Carter first meets Cecilia, she offers him a cup of tea and asks him if he'd like milk and honey. "Oh, no thanks," he says. "Just black or -- whatever you call it." To which the deadpan Cecilia responds, "Tea. I call it tea."

For her part Cecilia is one of the oddest characters to grace a Shepard play. She's half flake and half smart-cookie. Ostrenko deftly embodies all of Cecilia's contradictions, which is no easy trick. She moves from utter blankness to incisive maneuvering in the blink of an eye. For example, when Carter tells her that, as a kid, he used to pretend to be the Lone Ranger, Cecilia wants to know: "Did you wear a mask?" When Carter says no, she coyly replies, "You were that good?" Then, with absolutely no trace of naivete, she asks: "Did you pull the wool over everyone's eyes? Did you fool everyone or just each other [meaning Vinnie]?"

Fooling no one, however, is Julie Christensen, whose Rosie is sloppily conceived and awkwardly costumed. (The actress looks ridiculous in an ill-fitting, pink floor-length negligee that's neither appropriate to the character nor alluring on her.) Christensen's loose grasp of the character means that the production suffers a bizarre change of tone in the third act, when Vinnie arrives in Rosie and Carter's Kentucky living room to confront her after 15 years. Even John Diehl, a seasoned film and TV actor (and a veteran of Shepard roles) can't save this scene from turning silly. For most of the production he does, however, bring a startling affectlessness to Vinnie, partially by intentionally not projecting his lines. His performance is a study in understatement, the perfect foil to Larson's frenetic Carter.

Also delightful is Hindman as Simms/Ames. Part kindly grandfather and part good ol' boy letch, he gets many of the play's best lines, including a haunting speech about how bloodlines connect all horses "from the glue factory to the winner's circle." And he exploits the heartbreaking vulnerability of his character, a washed-up old man, commenting at one point to Cecilia that her Derby outfit makes him drool. "You'd be able to have me groveling at your feet," he tells her. Then, getting down on his knees to show he's good for it, he wonders, "Would you like to see me grovel?" Like a Thoroughbred, Hindman -- and most of his colleagues -- take every turn and stretch in Simpatico for all they're worth.

Written by Sam Shepard. Directed by Darrell Larson. Starring Larson, John Diehl, Kim Ostrenko, Bill Hindman, Delma Miranda, and Julie Christensen. Through August 9. Florida Shakespeare Theatre at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, 305-445-1119.

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Robin Dougherty

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