Anyone walking in off the street just to see General Zod up close is likely to be bemused and perhaps confounded by Sam Shepard's "Simpatico," a bizarre and byzantine drama even by Shepardian standards.
But for anyone who has watched Michael Shannon and his compatriots at A Red Orchid Theatre for many years, the return of Shannon, now an Oscar nominee and star of "Man of Steel" and "Boardwalk Empire," to the Old Town backroom of his relative youth is endlessly fascinating, not least because this production is so weighty with resonance to the life, times and very different trajectories of this remarkable group of Chicago actors and friends.
And it is a measure of the guts of both Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen, the underappreciated actor who splits his time between the off-Loop and fighting Chicago fires, even as his longtime, once-inseparable pal splits his time between the off-Loop and "Late Show With David Letterman," that they each are so willing to confront their own inevitable baggage.
In a drama set around the rough edges of horse racing, Shannon plays Carter, a very successful, urbane guy in Kentucky with a nice family and a lot of money. Van Swearingen plays Vinnie, a guy who has stayed in his lousy California town and lives in relative squalor as a two-bit faker and fantasticist. Carter, who looks tanned and good in a suit now, is even married to the girl, Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom), that the balding Vinnie once loved.
As partial recompense, Vinnie is bankrolled by his old pal Carter, who has good reason to want his friend to stay quiet about certain schemes and behaviors in their youth, back when the two men were hucksters and con artists on more of a par, back when they took down a shady racing official named Simms (Doug Vickers), forcing him to flee and live under an assumed name.
But a gulf is a gulf, people grow weary of old bonds, and the play begins with the besuited Carter's return to Vinnie's squalid hole to try and acquire the other part of the reason he is funding his old buddy: incriminating photographs involving his wife. Carter comes armed with cash and a desire for a clean break from the past. And for the first 10 or 20 minutes, Shannon and Van Swearingen play two middle-aged men who started out the same and ended up in very different places, and thus now have to renegotiate a once intimate relationship, eventually with the help of a woman, Cecilia, played with rich complexity by Mierka Girten in a role that seems to perfectly match her longtime part in this ensemble.
"Our friendship always come first," says Shannon's Carter in that hypnotic first scene. "You know that. Always does."
"I haven't asked you for much special treatment over the years," says Van Swearingen's Vinnie.
Both guys know the other is lying. Vinnie is angry, telling Carter that he was betrayed while "preparing the ground for your big success." And yet both men also know they came from the same place, and, in this particular play, following a variety of twists and turns that will test most people's ability to follow the drama, they will eventually see their fortunes reverse, just as soon as their existing mutual power structure is shot to hell.
Shannon, who started his career playing squalid characters in this very theater, will end up being one again, looking exactly like he used to look 15 years ago, lying on the very same floor, shaking his guts out just as did so many times before. At the start of the play, neither character knows this. But we sense what might happen, life being capricious and all.
One would not want to overstate the parallel between these two actors and their actual lives (Van Swearingen is an honored lieutenant in the Chicago Fire Department, and Shannon as yet is no Tom Cruise). But you can't miss the way these two jittery live wires are playing, brilliantly, with their own stuff.
By extension, those of us who have watched Shannon from the start sit there looking at the remarkable actor, noting the increased polish, the firmer confidence, the air of success that now hangs on his bones, and yet seeing that he is fundamentally unchanged. Especially when doing this kind of work, the work he clearly most wants to do.
Indeed, you start to wonder whether Shannon actually has changed at all, or whether it is merely his audience that has changed in its perceptions, responding more actively to him now. In the theater, that is unknowable. Boldfaced names can never disappear, but here Shannon goes further than I've seen a star of his stature go when it comes to staring down his own past. Horse racing and show business are not so different; hucksters populate both, as do the fantastically lucky and those who deserved more.
When "Simpatico" was first produced in New York in 1994 (it is much lesser known than, and certainly not the taut equal of, "Buried Child" and "True West," even if it has many themes in common with the latter), it was seen as an elegiac, dreamy production, a nod to Shepard's interest in film noir and a piece very much about the character of Simms, the self-loathing but loquacious official. Vickers, another Red Orchid veteran with a perennially complex presence onstage, is deliciously unknowable here, as is Engstrom, an actress who always lives on the very knife edge of profundity and who is as deeply resonant as I have ever seen her be.
But aided by the collage-loving designer Grant Sabin, Dado does not direct "Simpatico" as anything to do with nostalgia or removed style. She stages it as an outlandish, in-your-face comedy some of the time and as a Tracy Letts-like potboiler for much of the rest of the time. Certainly, Dado could have done more to help the audience follow the complex trajectory of the yarn, and maybe she should have worried a bit more about consistency of tone, but you sense she did not give a damn, this project being about a more raw and personal set of explorations in the only room where they'd really make any sense.
And yet as those who love Shepard will quickly grasp, the dichotomies under the microscope are very much in keeping in with the obsessions of a great American writer interested in buried secrets and old brothers torn furiously asunder, but always compelled to return to each other's bosom in search of the closest thing life offers to a refuge and center.
When: Through Aug. 25
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $30-$40 at 312-943-8722 or aredorchidtheatre.org