Fractured characters in an invisible world

Issue 

Simpatico
By Sam Shepard
Directed by David Berthold
Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 2
Until May 4
Reviewed by Brendan Doyle

From his screenplays for Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970) through to Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas and the stage play True West, Sam Shepard's characters have always fascinated me. Drawn mainly from the margins of society, they are a collection of misfits, products of the fractured, alienating place that is the modern USA.

Simpatico opens with the forlorn Vinnie, played by Nicholas (Bad Boy Bubby) Hope, apparently wasting away on a filthy bed in a crummy room somewhere in California. Carter (Marshall Napier) arrives with smart suit and attaché case to "help" Vinnie.

The two are former racing associates, involved 15 years ago in a horse racing scam masterminded by Carter. Since then, Carter has become a rich Kentucky horse breeder, and Vinnie lives as a reclusive bum who amuses himself pretending to be a detective. But now the time has come for revenge. Vinnie talks about his shoe box of incriminating pornographic photographs, and Carter will do anything to get them.

From there, as Carter tries to retrieve and destroy the photos, the story meanders through a maze of murky, ambiguous relationships as we piece together the history of the scam and its consequences. We meet Cecilia, Vinnie's girlfriend, Safeways checkout girl, whose greatest dream is to go to the Kentucky Derby. Discovering this, Carter promises her a trip to the Derby if she will help get back some incriminating photos from Simms, a former racing commissioner blackmailed by Carter. And there's Rosie, neurotic creature, who ran out on Vinnie for Carter.

This rambling play, which runs for two and a half hours, consists almost exclusively of scenes in which two characters talk with, or rather at, each other: there is little real communication but rather self-revelation through quirky and often very funny bits of monologue.

This is Shepard's strength, as he reveals the ambiguities of relationships and people's motivations as they stumble about within a hazy, intangible social context that is defined by money, greed and corruption. "Everybody's caught up in a fractured world that they can't even see", Shepard wrote about another story. In Simpatico too characters can find no firm footing in the inhuman and ultimately absurd society around them.

Marshall Napier as Carter, ultimately destroyed by guilt, Greta Scacchi as the silly but strangely fascinating Cecilia and Jonathan Hardy as the brooding Simms, all do a great job with Shepard's difficult script. David Berthold's direction is sure on the whole, and Daniel Tobin's design works well.

However, like many others in the audience on the night, I occasionally got bored, especially in the second half, with scenes that didn't seem to be advancing the action. And the audience response at the end of the performance was only lukewarm.

There is a certain malaise in this production which I can only put down to an overlong script, and a curious lethargy that Nicholas Hope brings to the role of Vinnie, which seems to dull the dramatic energy of some scenes. I came away disappointed that there hadn't been more of the excitement that is the mark of great theatre.