Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico” has a forceful workout at McCarter Theatre.

By Liz Keill

PRINCETON, NJ – If you’re at all familiar with the works of Sam Shepard, you know that he writes about gritty, unforgiving characters in what appear to be hopeless situations.

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In “Simpatico,” we learn that Vinnie and Carter are former partners in a race horse scheme, but dissolved that relationship 15 years ago. (Simpatico was the name of the race horse.) The hapless Vinnie (Guy Van Swearingen) is visited by Carter (Michael Shannon) to bail him out from yet another arrest, this time for threatening his girlfriend, Cecilia.

The preppy, successful Carter initially sees his job as smoothing over Vinnie’s troubles. Carter visits Cecilia (Mierka Girten) in her home and persuades her to some to Vinnie’s place to sort out their problems.  But along the way, Vinnie visits Simms (John Judd) to convince him he has compromising photographs of his former girlfriend, Rosie, with Simms. He tries, unsuccessfully, to get Simms to buy them.

When Simms rejects his offer, Vinnie goes to Kentucky and confronts, Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom), who is now married to Carter.  We see Kristin E. Ellis as Kelly, who takes care of Rosie’s children, but is suspicious of Vinnie when he comes to call.

Meanwhile, Carter convinces Cecilia to visit Simms and offer him money to take back the box of photos that he thinks Vinnie has sold to Simms.

If this isn’t confusing enough, we have scenes in Cucamonga and San Dimas, California and Midway and Lexington, Kentucky. The action moves along from Vinnie’s hole-in-the wall digs to a mansion, with set design by Grant Sabin. Costumes by Christine Pascual reflect the rich/poor contrasts among the characters. It all takes a dark turn as Carter begins to disintegrate while Vinnie becomes stronger.

Dado has directed this production, which has been presented, in conjunction with McCarter, by A Red Orchid Theatre Company from Chicago.  It’s a fitting tribute to playwright Shepard, who died in July. Still, we are left wondering about the ultimate fate of these problematic people. There are touches of humor along the way, especially when Cecilia thinks she might go to the Kentucky Derby, a long held dream.

The question through all of this is: why should we care about these people? The only sane one appears to be Cecilia, who works in a Safeway Supermarket.  The actors are all convincing in their roles, especially Rosie with her come-hither charm, who is emotionally devastated when Vinnie gives her the box of pictures.

If you’re a Shepard fan, this is the play for you. But if you’re not, it’s a downhill slog from beginning to end.  “Simpatico” continues at the Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center through Oct. 15. For tickets, call 609-528-2787 or visit mccarter.org