Things Out of Sync in This 'Simpatico'

By T.H. MCCULLOH, Special to The Times

Sam Shepard once said that when he gets writer's block, he imagines what he would do next if he were acting in the play, even if it's coming onstage naked in a bearskin. His method sticks out like a sore thumb in most of his plays. It's obvious in his dark comedy "Simpatico," in its Los Angeles-Orange County premiere at Rude Guerrilla's Empire Theater in Santa Ana. Illogic follows illogic throughout his meandering tale of two Cucamonga hotshots who are collapsing under their personal pressures after conniving to ruin the Commissioner of Racing in California.

Carter seems to be all right in the beginning, but Vinnie is lost in bourbon and a stereotypical Shepard filthy undershirt. It seems Carter is hiding Vinnie to protect Vinnie from himself, and hiding Simms, the commissioner, under an assumed name in Kentucky. Enter loony Shepard sex-pot Cecilia, Vinnie's pick-up, who also charms Carter, and completely floors Simms when she goes to Kentucky to buy back the pictures Vinnie took of Simms and Vinnie's ex-wife in the throes of animalistic amour. If this sounds confusing, Shepard makes no effort to clear up things. By the time Vinnie gets back to Cucamonga, Carter is shaking all over Vinnie's bed in pain from too much of Vinnie's bourbon, and thirsty Vinnie has to go out to get another bottle. Now Cecilia returns from Kentucky and seems to wonder what it's all about. So does the audience.

Rita Rene's direction hasn't done much to solve the puzzle. In her staging, she shows little appreciation of how to make it work. David Beatty's Vinnie shines brightly, with some interesting subtext and a laid-back sense of honesty that works well with what Shepard has provided him. As Carter, in the beginning a control freak who later loses control over himself, Andrew Nienaber plays along the surface and lets his self-indulgence match Shepard's. Forrest Robinson plays Simms on one note, leering, rarely looking at the other actors, with a broad Southern accent that misses the effect he should make, and a simplistic approach without any subtext whatsoever. Ashley Alexandra Bretz is the slightly loony Cecilia, and plays her so overboard and kittenish she's a joke instead of a character.

Alyson Cook is the nanny for the progeny of Rosie, Vinnie's ex-wife, who eloped with Carter, and gives a straight-forward, honest reading of the small part. Rosie is played with delicious bitterness by Pamela Nicholson.

"Simpatico"

September 08, 2000

Reviewed by Mark Jonas

Essentially a poker game for six actors, Sam Shepardís "Simpatico" makes a lot out of a very small story. And like most poker games, "Simpatico" goes on a little too long. But that doesnít mean itís not entertaining. It's Southland premiere, now at Santa Anaís Empire Theater, certainly satisfies.

The cynic might say "Simpatico" resembles any number of Shepard plays on the usual Shepard obsessions. Will he mention horses? (Yes, the whole play concerns horses.) Will he talk about Cucamonga? (Yes, and also San Dimas and Azusa and Glendora.) Will men get drunk? (Oh, yeah.) Is there a gun around? (Only one this time; no shots.)

The Shepard fan, however, sees the play as a welcome return, another impressive examination of the Western daydream. And you donít have to be a Shepard fan to realize that this is a really good play, an eminently satisfying work with a trace kinship to the antiheroic western films of the 1960s and 1970s.

The plot is this: some years ago, a Southern California racing commissioner named Simms caught two friends, Vinnie and Carter, swapping prize geldings for ringers. Vinnie and Carter were going down. But then, they blackmailed Simms with some incriminating pornography. The result? Simms had to change his name and move to Kentucky; Vinnie lost his wife and went into hiding; Carter went legit, started a family, and joined a country club. The trio has been calling each otherís bluffs ever since. When some of the pornographic photo negatives suddenly canít be found, the poker game is on again.

This Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. production is directed by Rita Rene, who acted at SCR about a decade back ("Good", "The Diviners"). Rene has done a wonderful job of pacing this "comedy with menace," and her non-Equity cast meets the playís challenges with sterling performances.

Since "Simpatico" unfolds as a series of two-character negotiations, any production of the play relies heavily upon the actorsí skills and personalities. If the cast is bad, itís a very long night. However, this cast is good, and often, itís really good. Of particular note is the remarkable Forrest Robinson, a Fullerton College theater arts professor who seems born to play Simms. Heís clearly having a lot of fun, and his performance is a home run, capturing the core, the fire, and the nuances in a complex character.

In the catalytic role of Cecilia, Ashley Alexandra Bretz initially comes on in a charming whirlwind of what seems like caffeine epilepsy; she expertly reveals her vulnerability as the story progresses, and masters a difficult Missouri-by-way-of-Britain accent. Andrew Nienaber has become a magnetic leading man; this is his third Rude G production, and he captures Carterís mania and handles Shepardís torrent of language with ease.

They drink a lot of bourbon in "Simpatico". You have to drink bourbon slowly, or else you wonít enjoy it. Itís an apt metaphor for the play, which lasts three acts and nearly three hours. Itís a small story, but the telling is worth each sip.

"Simpatico", presented by Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Fri-Sun through Oct. 1 (no performances Sept. 15-17). $10-12. 714.547.4688.

BACKSTAGE WEST
10/2/00

Reviewed by Kristina Mannion

Proving once again its impressive facility for adding depth to already complex, thought-provoking material, the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company has developed a powerful, intriguing staging of Sam Shepard's last stage work, the dark, 1994 Simpatico-a twisting, irony-laden play that traces the fates of two longtime pals caught up in the consequences of a crime committed together years in the past. Directed with an alternately languid and explosive style by Rita Rene, and bolstered by a round of adept performances, this production cleverly mines all the black humor and palpable tension that live in Shepard's script. And, although Shepard's play and the motives of his characters do seem artificially puffed up at times, the RGTC crew members successfully surmount this drawback by glazing the entire work with an appropriately seedy glamour and hazy noir feel. They stamp a fascinating, indelible personality on the production, imparting a more heightened and stylized sheen to Simpatico's exploration of the American dream's shady underbelly and the sometimes- questionable power of redemption.
Well suited for this play's stark, no-frills atmosphere, the RGTC's rather small, ascetic stage is aptly dressed by set designers Rene and David Beatty. Sectioned into three separate areas infused with dim, shadowy lighting, the stage transports us between Lexington, Ky., and Cucamonga, Calif., where the majority of the action takes place. In remote Cucamonga, in a rundown, ill-kept apartment, we meet unlikely protagonist Vinnie, who has called upon old pal Carter to help him win the favor of a new love interest. Subsequently, through their amusing but mostly heated conversations, we learn about their past involvement in a horseracing scheme, their blackmail of a local horserace commissioner, and the resulting events that led to Vinnie's lowlife status and Carter's rise to affluence in Lexington. Vinnie seeks liberation from the past, which in turn involves his latest flame, the double-crossed commissioner, and even Carter's wife, who happens to be Vinnie's ex-spouse.
For the most part, Shepard's compelling characters and his tight, often smartly comical dialogue hold Simpatico together, even when the characters' goals or inspirations seem weak or artificially amplified. And smartly, Rene and her solid ensemble recognize the elements that lend the play's strong points the most impact: robust characterizations and well turned-out lines. As Vinnie, the rueful reprobate, Beatty evinces a world-weary charm tinged with bitterness that makes him a fascinating character throughout the show. Easily adopting a hangdog posture and lazy but at times volatile demeanor, Beatty's antihero exemplifies the sadness of lost dreams, lost potential, and lost faith. His subtle yet notable transformation is the play's best component.
Serving as Vinnie's counterpart, Carter, Andrew Nienaber also turns in a sound performance. Though it takes a little time for him to catch his stride, Nienaber delivers a stirring portrayal of a man haunted by the past and unable to acknowledge the flimsy construction of his present. And as Simms, the
commissioner conned by Vinnie and Carter, Forrest Robinson offers a practiced, bourbon-smooth depiction of a Southern gent, complete with drawling accent, who's come to terms with his ruined past. The depth of his elegant cynicism is matched by the equally extreme, hilariously beguiling nafvet of Ashley Alexandra Bretz's daffy Cecilia, Vinnie's current crush. VVith a mobile face and a comical ability to murmur and warble her lines with coquettish artlessness, Bretz paints a humorous, touching picture of a woman caught up in her own strange fantasies. It's a fun, captivating performance that nearly steals the wind from the play's other scenes. Filling in the last prime role, Pamela Nicholson offers an edgy portrayal of Rosie, Carters bitter wife, whose bitterness isn't entirely understandable given the spotty history afforded to her in Shepard's script. Shading Rosie with an ultra-noir temperament that does go a little too far, Nicholson manages to garner some unwanted laughter in her one pivotal scene with Vinnie. Nevertheless, she pulls off a sturdy interpretation of yet another character soured by past experience and incapable of changing her
future. And ultimately, that's the underlying dilemma faced by nearly all of Simpatico's characters; it's how each approaches that dilemma that gives this work its dimension and a polished, insightful analysis.
OC REGISTER
9/10/2000

REVIEW: Rude Guerrilla comes up a winner with the O.C. premiere of Sam Shepard's wickedly funny 1994 play.

By ERIC MARCHESE
The Orange County Register

Referring to those great old detective movies, one character in "Simpatico" chortles, "They don't make 'em any more" as he swigs down a jigger of Kentucky bourbon. But with "Simpatico," that's just what Sam Shepard has done--created a funny, stylish, neo-noir piece of theater that's a lot more about style than it is about substance. That fact is proven by Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's smart-looking, shrewd new production at the Empire Theater in Santa Ana, the work's Orange and Los Angeles counties premiere.
The productivity of Shepard, one of the hottest playwrights of the '70s and '80s, has decreased in the past decade, "Simpatico" is his newest play, and it's from 1994. It's much more an exercise in style than the biting, harsh statements made by his earlier, seminal works, yet contains many a Shepard hallmark-- the classic, almost silver-screen-influenced dialogue, the dark view of humanity, the shifting personality traits of his characters, the wicked sense of humor.
On its surface, "Simpatico" is about two partners in crime, the slick, yuppiefied Carter (Andrew Nienaber) and the slow-witted Vinnie (David Beatty), and how Vinnie tries to ruin Carter with some incriminating X-rated photographs.
Shepard's leisurely three-act opus takes us all over the map, from and Cucamonga, where Carter and Vinnie grew up, to the greenery of Lexington, Ky. The world of horse-racing provides the story's colorful backdrop; the length and breadth of "Simpatico" is filled with the terms of the racing world's lexicon.
But like any good film noir, that world's spice is simply being exploited by the work’s author for its distinctive flavor and jargon. Like the films it mimics, "Simpatico" is really "about" concepts such as friendship, loyalty and integrity. The story's vivid characterizations, and not its rather loose-limbed plot, are what we remember most about the play, and at the Empire, Rita Rene has given us a first-rate staging populated with distinctive, memorable performances.
The opening scene, between Carter and Vinnie, is vintage Shepard, reminiscent of the two day-and-night brothers of Shepard's "True West." Here, Carter is the slick sophisticate with the short fuse, Vinnie the sweet-but-dumb partner to whom he is eternally bonded, for better or worse. The two characters are well aware of their love-hate connection, to the point of likening it to a bad marriage each despises yet still needs. "It's a lot like marriage," Vinnie laughs in Carter's face; "...only worse," responds Carter.
The events of "Simpatico" only seem to exist as a way of illustrating the surprising evolution of this partnership's emotional tenor. Like many a Shepard play, "Simpatico" is short on action but long on character study. Keep your eyes open and you'll see some dramatic changes in the characters of Carter and Vinnie.
Along the way, we meet Cecilia (Ashley Alexandra Bretz), a luscious young woman who doesn't seem to know what she wants, but who turns heads wherever she goes; Simms (Forrest Robinson), the shady ex-partner-in-crime to Vinnie and Carter; and Rosie (Pamela Nicholson), the classic femme fatale without which no film noir would be complete.
Shepard's script offers all the elements of the genre: harsh depictions of the seamier side of life, brittle encounters between various characters that yield both tension and laughs, and a generally grim, cynical view of the world.
"Simpatico" could easily be played as a campy parody of film noir. Rene instead delves into the script with a master's hand, guiding her well-picked cast easily through the script's tense moments and mining the script for its choice humor, adding her own inventive bits. In the opening scene, for example, Vinnie, a relaxed drunk, smokes half-smoked cigarettes and eats Cheez-Its topped with aerosol-dispensed Easy Cheese. Carter's visit to Cecilia's home is a masterpiece of comic timing, while every scene featuring the wily Simms is enhanced by Robinson's well-detailed portrayal and flair for humorous nuances.
As Carter, Nienaber is absolutely explosive, a hothead as manic and edgy as a speed freak. Beatty is Nienaber's match, the slow-and-steady tortoise to Carter's hopped-up hare, a wrongheaded shrub with a knack for getting himself in too deep. Strangely, for all his apparent slowness, dumbness and compliance, Vinnie is still often in control. The pair create two vivid portraits, then manage to make credible the script's seemingly imperceptible reversal of roles. By the end of "Simpatico," it's Carter who's a ruined man, weepy and ineffectual, comforting himself by sitting in his undershirt in Vinnie's hovel, guzzling Kentucky bourbon. Vinnie, meanwhile, now appears a changed man, some one in total command of his destiny.
The intriguing Cecilia is part girl Friday and part character role; accordingly, Bretz presents a different face in each scene. Our first impression of her is eccentric but ditzy. Next time around, she seems calm and level-headed, and in her visit to Simms, she combines the two, adding the third layer of minor, would-be femme fatale. Bretz delivers a wealth of nuance to Cecilia the absent-minded nearly auto-pilot comments she makes, her in-and-out mental focus, the giddy squeal she makes when she laughs.
Robinson's role is the script's juiciest, and he milks it for all its worth. His Simms is the textbook good ol'boy, costumed here in vest, suspenders, bolo tie and snakeskin boots. He loves horseracing for its tactile nature--its feels and its smells--and not for the fortunes it can create. Cecilia's visit arouses his sensual nature and is one of this staging's comic highlights.
As Rosie, the woman once married to Vinnie who wound up choosing Carter, Nicholson is steely and ice-cold, one of the controlling forces behind Vinnie and Carter. Shepard keeps us in suspense by telling us about Rosie bit by bit before bringing her on stage. Nicholson makes it worth the wait, delivering a woman whose fury is always just below the surface.
September 2000

OC WEEKLY

If you like gut-wrenching realistic theater about love, friendship, family and alcohol abuse in America, then you are probably already a huge fan of Sam Shepard. The playwright captured the hearts of audiences in the early '70s, winning the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child and earning 10 Obie-awards. Although his newer players haven't received as much ink (he's as well known these days for his screenwriting and acting), the recent smash revival on Broadway of True West catapulted him back into theatrical limelight. His 1994 play Simpatico is one of those newer plays. Made into a major film last year, it exemplifies everything for which Shepard is famous, a fact illuminated by a solid production courtesy of Rude Guerrilla Theat[er] Company.
The premise of Shepard's comedic revenge thriller belies the power of his writing: irnagine that you betrayed your best friend and accomplice in crime to achieve tremendous wealth, yet accidentally left him with evidence that can destroy you. Carter (Andrew Nienaber), his best friend Vinnie (David Beatty),
and Vinnie's girlfriend, Rosie (Pamela Nicholson), blackmail local horseracing commissioner Simms (Forrest Robinson) to avoid being arrested for fixing races. Carter and Rosie then run off together. The play begins many years later, when downtrodden, brokenhearted Vinnie decides that ifs time to rectify the wrongs. He and the other characters are forced to confront the fact that retribution cannot erase damage and truth cannot turn back the clock.
Most compelling about this production is the acting. Nienaber's horse-trading tycoon Carter is mesmerizing, imbued with a John Malkovichian presence that transforms from initial arrogance to final desperation. Beatty's Vinnie is convincing, transforming our sympathies as his scheming character unfolds. Ashley Alexandra Bretz impeccably plays Cecilia, the compassionate and coquettish grocery-store cashier who gets caught up in the drama. Best of all is Robinson's portrayal of the shrewd and witty commissioner Simms; this performance alone is worth the price of the ticket.
Director Rita Rene directs individual scenes with much insight and efficacy. Many of the scenes are poignant and riveting, a feat enabled by her ability to capitalize on the Empire Theatre's intimate space. However, she doesn't pay enough attention to the plots intricacies. In what seems to be an effort to shorten the length of this very long play, the characters relate important details too speedily or awkwardly. This leaves theatergoers moved by the obvious plot lines but confused about the full story. Nevertheless, if you are looking for heartfelt realism and fine acting, this show should not be missed. (Bryan Reynolds)