Circle Players revisits Sam Shepard’s 1994 drama.

By: Stuart Duncan
   The dictionary defines the word "simpatico" as "congenial, likable." The poster for the Circle Playhouse production of Sam Shepard’s 1994 drama Simpatico offers a few more lurid words: "love — treachery — greed — blackmail." If I were you, I’d trust the poster.
   It’s typical Sam Shepard fare: lots of plot, perhaps a bit more than you need; unsavory characters you really wouldn’t want to have dinner with; long and, in spots, over-written (it runs almost three hours long and is spaced over three acts); and intense focus of the individual characters as they prove incompetent or likely to be forgotten. But it is so beautifully acted by a cast of six and so stunningly directed, by Joseph Porter, it’s well worth it.
   Shepard’s plot wanders between California and Kentucky, dropping in on Vinnie and Carter, two old friends who share a combustible secret. The first act takes place in Vinnie’s dirty digs. Vinnie (played exquisitely by Randall McCann) has no sense of cleanliness, nor interest apparently, and thus is relegated to sopping up bourbon by the tumbler full and twitting Carter (Ray Peretti) about the secret they share — one that has kept Vinnie in cash and at least the requisites of food and clothing for years now.
   By Act II we learn what the secret entails, how it affected an important politico (George Straley) who has since changed his name and moved into obscurity. We meet him and discover that he has apparently overcome his plight and seems at peace with it. And we also meet Vinnie’s new girl, Cecilia (Sondra Ferra), a sweet, seemingly innocent young thing who works at a Safeway.
   By Act III we have met Carter’s wife, Rosie (Valerie Doran), who incidentally also was Vinnie’s first wife, but that’s the sort of stuff that Shepard insists on handing to us. She is sexy, a bit devious and thoroughly unimpressed with either man. We also have learned the full contours of the big secret and see how it ruins all who touch it.
   The acting carries the day and director Porter handles it beautifully, allowing the cast to explore all the crevices, taking the time to poke around. It’s not always worth it, but that is the script’s fault, not the actors. In particular, the opening act between Vinnie and Carter is Sam Shepard at its absolute best.
   George Straley gives a magnificently underplayed characterization of a man completely at peace with the past (but always with just the twinkle of revenge). The women get short shift (another Shepard custom). Neither Cecilia nor Rosie are fully explained nor developed and appear to be there merely for window-dressing. This is certainly not one of Shepard’s memorable plays, but it is indeed fascinating and so well done, you won’t want to miss it.
Simpatico continues at Circle Playhouse, 416 Victoria Ave., Piscataway, through Jan. 22. Performances: Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Tickets cost $12-$15. For information, call (732) 968-7555. On the Web: www.circleplayers.com