Thursday , June 13 2024
Kirk Gostkowski and Brandon Hughes in the Chain Theatre's 'Simpatico' by Sam Shepard (photo by Luis Amador)
Kirk Gostkowski and Brandon Hughes (photo credit: Luis Amador)

Theater Review (NYC): ‘Simpatico’ by Sam Shepard at the Chain Theatre

For awhile now I’ve had a sense that Sam Shepard has fallen somewhat out of style. Perhaps his plays seem so of-their-time that producers think they won’t resonate with the current generation of young theater folk.

But sometimes these things just go in cycles. And if the current revival of Simpatico from the Chain Theatre is any indication, Shepard’s characters, his gaudy and gritty language, and the structure and aesthetics of his writing remain well and truly vital.

Starting Gate

The milieu of Simpatico is world of thoroughbred racing, which Shepard depicts as corrupt, even sleazy. The subject matter may suggest an era even earlier than the setting of the play (which seems to be the early 1980s); think The Sting, or Peaky Blinders. And it is a period piece in a sense. Email is brand-new; photography still depends on negatives. The play’s sheer talkiness, too, feels like something apart from our present age of spectacle, short attention spans, and domination of culture by video.

Elizabeth Bays and Pete Mattaliano in 'Simpatico' by Sam Shepard at the Chain Theatre (photo by Monica Park)
Elizabeth Bays and Pete Mattaliano (photo credit: Monica Park)

But it’s precisely their not-quite-naturalistic volubility that magnifies the characters’ personalities, visceral individual histories, and clashes. These people spring to life in the three locations tucked neatly into Jackson Berkley’s economical set on the small stage.

The plot involves strained and conflicting loyalties, a years-old case of blackmail, simmering vengefulness, and the personal and criminal pasts of two childhood frenemies. Vinnie (a high-powered and droll Brandon Hughes) has lived a spare, under-the-radar life since he and his buddy Carter (a blowtorch turn by Kirk Gostkowski) pulled a big stunt that sent them in starkly opposite directions. Vinnie’s attempt to call in a favor from Carter sets off a sequence of events that could change, maybe even reverse, their respective fortunes. But do either of them mean what they say?

Making the Turn

The pair’s machinations pull in Vinnie’s new young lady friend Cecilia (a sharp and funny Elizabeth Bays) and eventually reach back to revisit the friends’ history with Simms (a riotous and dangerous turn by Pete Mattaliano), a former racing commissioner who has made a new life for himself, and with Carter’s headstrong wife Rosie (Christina Elise Perry, thorny and in full bloom). The plot and backstory unfold slowly, with aching tension, while we cling to every sweet, snarling sentence. One character suffers a dramatic meltdown. Another stunningly reveals a canniness that had seemed out of reach. A third gets a hard-won education in the sneaky ways of the world.

Christina Elise Perry in 'Simpatico' by Sam Shepard (photo by Monica Park)
Christina Elise Perry (photo credit: Monica Park)

David Zayas Jr. directs with precision and pizzazz and the cast is uniformly superb. Even Monica Park in the small role of a nanny makes a tangy bowl of salsa out of side-eye and whispers.

Well Shod

I’ve seen, even studied, quite a number of Sam Shepard plays over the years but was unfamiliar with this one. I don’t know why – big names have been attached to Simpatico in the past. Its original Off-Broadway run in 1994 starred Ed Harris (who had a long association with Shepard’s work), Fred Ward, Marcia Gay Harden, and Beverly D’Angelo. A screen adaptation from 1999 featured Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, and Sharon Stone.

This cast fills those big shoes without so much as a quiver. And this production announces that seven years after Sam Shepard’s death, his plays still have plenty to say, and can entertain mightily while they say it.

Simpatico runs through June 29 at the Chain Theatre. Visit the website for schedule and tickets.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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