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Every time someone enters in Sam Shepard’s Simpatico, it’s as if the stage dips like a spider web...or waterbed. One move, even a tiptoe, alters what’s come before. Parts rise, others sag. Here is now there, at least until the next person arrives.

Vinnie begins as a drab splatter on soiled sheets, two stiff belts from eternal dissipation. He’s in the equivalent of a Witness Protection Program. Lifelong pal, Carter, gives him “hush money” about a nefarious deal and “some schism” 15 years ago. Stranded in Cucamonga, Vinnie has no car. He’s “dead...locked away” (a stage direction has him say, with “sudden quiet sincerity”).

But hear Vinnie tell it: he’s not only an “intrinsically innocent person,” he’s Vincent T. Webb, big-time detective for the past five years, with a shoulder holster, badge, handcuffs, the whole gumshoe schmear. So, which is Vinnie? The slob bloated with Irish whiskey or Sir Knight of the Mean Streets? Or maybe a split personality? Simms, who has reinvented himself so successfully he barely remembers the past, thinks Vinnie’s “got a very convincing double.”

The first time we see Cecilia — in some sort of relationship with Vinnie — she describes a completely different version (“He’s not crazy, just lonesome”). She also talks worldly wise. Says she’s sworn off cheating on a partner. The next time we see her, however, she’s Little Bo Peep and almost, if there was such a state, preinnocent. In another guise, Cecilia lets slip that everything seems “busted up” to her, as if she’s “lived a dozen different lives.”

Simms, another of Carter’s victims, slaves 24/7 at a near-impossible task: tracing the identities of thoroughbred horses through bloodlines. “How many lives do you think a man can have,” he asks Vinnie. “How many lives within this one?”

Not that long ago, the rules demanded that playwrights and actors create consistent characters. They must have more than one trait but must not venture far from a unified whole. With the advent of deconstruction, findings in physics, and post (now post-post) modernism, the center has not held. Nowadays characters are much more fragmented, with various, often unruly, aspects; either that or they’re different people at different times of day. (In one of our best local examples, when Jefferson Mays played Hamlet at the Rep, he kept exploring more and more sides to the dour Dane, and loved it when they didn’t match up.)

Simpatico fits square within this approach. It has Shepard’s usual signatures: wacko-serious scenes (“funny-deep” a friend calls them); spatial warping (Vinnie flits from Cucamonga to Kentucky in the blink of an eye); and the sense that the best is long gone and won’t come around again. In contrast to his earlier works, in Simpatico the universe isn’t fallen or vindictive; it just is what it is: Shepard stuffed his signatures into the characters themselves. Each becomes, as in Pirandello’s play, six identities in search of a human being.

There’s still time to see New Village Arts’ capable production, but it must close soon. The performance I saw had rough spots, but, under Lisa Berger’s smart direction, caught the split personality of a play in which no one is “pleasant, of similar mind or temperament, compatible” — i.e., “simpatico.”

Tim Wallace’s set collapses space: four playing areas, two levels on sidelong rakes, put Cucamonga next door to Midway, Kentucky — so when Carter shouts that Vinnie “was just here,” in California, and is now in Kentucky, what he says is true, at least in theatrical — if not real — time. The play’s trigger: 15 years ago, Carter, Vinnie, and Rosie (who’s been married to both) pulled off a horse-switching scam at a racetrack. In Wallace’s sound design, thundering hooves, every so often, overstate the obvious.

Like Tennessee Williams and David Mamet, Shepard writes such distinctive dialogue, it’s hard to fake. As Carter, Mike Sears found the emotional arc — tumble, actually — but spoke too fast and blurred key lines when I caught the show. He mumbled Carter’s wonderful paean to cheap vino: “Ripple, Thunderbird. Nothing fancy. Headache wine.”

Another eye-opener about Simpatico, unlike Shepard’s similar dramas, as characters try on and discard identities, they might find one that works. Jack Missett’s Simms (an apt effort that could use a rinse of sleaze) looks to have made a clean break, as does Terri Park’s (“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille”) Rosie — or have they?

Kim Strassburger’s excellent Cecilia (at times in seeming control, at others fragile as glass) could have made a clean break as well — at least you hope so, given the gaggle of maniacs she confronts at every turn. Strassburger and Manny Fernandes anchor the production. Fernandes makes Vinnie’s growth so convincing you almost believe that he could be “my own man again.” Almost, if you couldn’t shake the sense that he and the others will continue to spin like revolving doors from one identity to the next.

Simpatico will follow you home, especially the urge to stitch it together. A few days after I saw the play, I found a single piece to a puzzle — big one, maybe an inch in diameter — in a parking lot. Somewhere a puzzle will never end. Same with Simpatico. ■

Simpatico, by Sam Shepard
New Village Arts, 2787 State Street, Carlsbad Village
Directed by Lisa Berger; cast: Manny Fernandes, Kelly Iversen, Jack Missett, Terri Park, Mike Sears, Kim Strassburger; scenic and sound design, Tim Wallace; costumes, Kristianne Kurner; lighting, Justin Hall
Playing through March 27; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 760-433-3245

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