Sam Shepard offered a sizeable hostage to fortune in a recent New York Times interview when he disclosed that a good deal of his latest play, Simpatico, was written while he was driving round in his Dodge: "On Highway 40 West or some of those big open highways, you can hold the wheel with one hand and write with the other."
This invites (and in America received) the response that there is another activity famously associated with one hand and that the writing in Simpatico is redolent, if anything, of that.
In fact, for all the assured humour of James Macdonald's Royal Court production, you are left feeling that this uncharacteristically plotty, not to say plodding, play could haveprofited from some of the dynamic self-indulgence and free-wheeling idiosyncrasy that characterised Shepard's earliest forays into American myth. His last piece, States of Shock - an underrated and savagely zany Stars and Stripes reworking of the Abraham and Isaac story, written in response to the Gulf War - represented a return to form in its dissociated dream-like vividness and dark intuitive verve. More carefully crafted and conscientious, Simpatico feels like tame stuff in comparison.
Tracing the delayed denouement of a racehorse-switching-cum-blackmailing scam dating from some 15 years earlier, the new play focuses, like the recently revived True West, on a couple of contrasted, role-reversing "brothers". Here the pair are well into their forties and well into the alternative destinies that awaited them after the fraud. Dilapidated Vinnie (a laid-back, insidious Ciaran Hinds) went into hiding under assumed names; the immaculately groomed Carter (Sean McGinley), having stolen both Vinnie's Buick and his wife, went on to power, fortune and respectability in the thoroughbred-raising world of Kentucky. But now Vinnie, who possesses letters and photographic negatives that could resurrect the scandal, wants a fuller and more metaphysical restitution than the hush money from Carter that has kept him quiet over the years. In short, he wants his ex-colleague to give himself up.
As it charts Carter's crack-up and Vinnie's cock-ups, Macdonald's production finds the right laconic inflections and mysterious edge for the material. It also elicits some fine performances. Janet McTeer is a wonderful mix of spaciness, suspicion and pathos as Cecilia, the eccentric girlfriend who switches sides in the vain hope of getting free tickets to the Derby, and Tony Haygarth brings a well-judged twinkling caginess to the role of the blackmailed racing commissioner who mischievously gets his own back on the pair by refusing to stoop to the offer of vengeance. A wittily barbed, alcohol-raddled wreck, Diana Hardcastle is chilling as the shared woman who turns out to be central to the original scam and who is now a lethal block to Vinnie's cockeyed, eventually touching quest for justice.
"They're all dying to belong to something old and rooted in American earth," says Carter of the folk who go to the Derby and sing "My Old Kentucky Home" even though they do not know the words and are from Illinois or Wisconsin. Shepard has always had a keen eye for the debasements of the American dream, and for his compatriots' trashy misuse of home-grown traditions. So it's a good joke and a final measure of the character's cynicism that Carter should make a sucker of Cecilia, who is desperate to attend "this last bastion of true American aristocracy" but is sublimely vague about such details as when it takes place.
Such gags don't exactly come thick and fast, however, and on a realistic level the plot depends on too many implausibilities. Would a powerful man like Carter really have allowed Vinnie to sit for 15 years on incriminating evidence that could ruin them both? Likewise, the idea that being ruined has turned the racing commissioner into a man of honour ("Loss can be a powerful elixir") is left for you to take on trust, which is a chore. And while there may be a definite mythic dimension to this story of guilt, alternative destinies, failed kinship and the doomed attempt to turn back the clock, it keeps getting muffled in the general long-windedness.
n A version of this review appeared in some editions of yesterday's paper
n To 13 May at the Royal Court, London, SW1 (0171-730 1745)
author of `Butterfly Kiss'
"He made the stream of consciousness monologue acceptable, which is both to the detriment and the great joy of theatre. Maybe he would have been an influence if I'd come across him during his really dangerous stage, but by the time I was looking around for influences he was already in his middle-aged movie star phase. I'm a big fan, but Simpatico seems like an x-ray, a shadow of his great work. It seems as if it was written on auto-pilot. Interestingly, it has two great scenes in it, both of which involve the women characters, so maybe that's a new development in his work. The women are both still bimbos and alcoholics, but they have a curious humanity that the men in the play don't have."
joint artistic director
of the Almeida theatre "I first came across Shepard through the actor Anthony Milner; they shared a greyhound called Silver Streak. In the Royal Court production of Seduced I played the dying Howard Hughes, lying on his bed with his long hair and long fingernails fantasising -about sex, mainly, and power and the American Dream. His belief, in his drugged-out state, is that he can fly, but his life-support machine prevents him. The most attractive thing about Shepard's work is that in spite of the rigours of life, the dream manages to force its way through reality. He instinctively understands his country and, as in all really good theatre writing, the language reverberates; there are real depths to be dug."
director of `True West' at the Donmar Warehouse
"I saw True West by accident on TV when I was 15 and was so shocked and blown apart by it I didn't speak for three days afterwards. He has an incredible skill at reproducing the way humans use language as ammunition, using tiny words, phrases and comments that explode throughout the work. When directing True West I found a view of an America of wild landscapes and deserts with pockets of civilisation clinging on to it, which seemed to parallel the way that the wildness and barbarity of human nature breaks out and overwhelms the domestic. The writing is raw, heightened, archetypal. It cuts straight through to the emotional armageddons, and the theatre becomes a crucible for those taboo emotions."