`Simpatico' Resounds With Shepard's Voice

Dramatist's new play revives his familiar themes, humor

SIMPATICO. Play by Sam Shepard. At the Joseph Papp Public Theater.

Expectations run high for a new Sam Shepard play. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning dramatist-turned-movie-star has produced only one new work, the ill-conceived ``States of Shock,'' since his powerful ``Lie of the Mind'' in 1985.

His latest play, ``Simpatico,'' was originally supposed to be on Broadway last season, but costs being what they are on the Great White Way, those plans fell through. Now it is being staged at the Off Broadway Public Theater, marking the playwright's return to that venue after an absence of 14 years.

``Simpatico,'' with a three-hour running time and a cast including Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Beverly D'Angelo, and Marcia Gay Harden, is no small work. Although it deals with themes of Americana and corruption that have preoccupied the playwright throughout his career, it is decidedly muted in its execution.

Like other playwrights with distinctive and original voices, Shepard has come dangerously close to parodying himself. With ``Simpatico,'' he has reined in his wilder instincts to create one of his most straightforward and accessible works.

Unfortunately, the plot is fairly perfunctory, and without his grander flourishes the play's machinations fail to amount to much.

It begins promisingly enough, with a scene between Carter (played by Harris), a well-dressed, strait-laced businessman type, and Vinnie (Ward), a down-on-his-luck vagabond living in a hovel. It seems that Carter and Vinnie were once best friends and partners in a plot to bring down a racing official, utilizing some incriminating pornographic pictures.

As the scene progresses, it becomes apparent that Shepard has not lost his talent for quirky, memorable dialogue, and the two actors obviously revel in their seedy characters.

The play is made up of a series of one-on-one encounters among the characters, who also include: Cecilia (Harden), Vinnie's loopy girlfriend, to whom he has given the pictures; Simms (James Gammon), the former racing official, now a low-level bureaucrat; and Rosie (D'Angelo), Vinnie's ex-wife, who left him for Carter and who is apparently also featured in those pictures.

Frustration sets in as the plot becomes more complicated and as we realize that Shepard doesn't seem to have any clear themes to express. Nor is he providing us with the kind of theatrical fireworks that might prove distracting.

Despite its length, ``Simpatico'' is never boring, and nearly all performers shine. Harris hits new heights of comic exasperation when faced with irritations both large and small; Ward is grunge personified; Harden brings a fine comic flair to her character's sweet befuddlement; Gammon, whose laconic drawl makes him the perfect Shepard actor, is both hilarious and strangely touching in a scene when he is comically overtaken by a woman's beauty; and D'Angelo, making her theater debut in a brief role, demonstrates that she has stayed away from the stage far too long.

When Shepard, who also directed, does try for heightened theatricality, as in the final scene, which depicts Carter's disintegration as a seemingly terminal case of the shakes, the effect doesn't really work.

There is no shortage of memorable dialogue or striking visual images (film noir seems to be the inspiration), and Shepard has provided large doses of the humor that has always served to undercut the pretensions of his dramaturgy.

In this era of impoverished theater, the richness of even a somewhat successful play like ``Simpatico'' demands attention.

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