Good Shepard

Sam Shepard fans have one last weekend to check out Simpatico, currently running at Actors Theatre of Houston. The play is typical Shepard: Lights come up on two men. One lies drunk or hungover in his shorts, on a single twin-bed mattress. The other is dressed in a suit and tie. He carries a briefcase and looks decidedly uncomfortable in this seedy setup -- a glaring light bulb, a single dirty window, a sink full of filthy dishes and clothing piled in an oily-looking stack on a chair.

Someone's hit bottom. The question -- the one Shepard often raises -- is who that is. Vinnie (Lew Temple) is the guy in his shorts. And Carter (George Brock), we soon find out, has come at Vinnie's beckoning. Clearly Vinnie's got something on Carter: Why else would a guy in a suit come running to this hellhole?

Plot, though, isn't what drives Shepard's plays. It's language, and strange characters, and biting commentary on love, family and the modern world that keep his work interesting. Though director Brandon Smith's production is very smooth (the music is terrific), much of it is simply too slow, too measured and too careful to bring Shepard's difficult work to life. Most of the performances lack the nuance to carry off some of the language, which can be over the top.

But James Belcher is the wonderful exception to that generality. When he's on the stage as Simms, he reminds you how thrilling live theater can be. Unpredictable, blade sharp and witty, his performance is worth every penny you'll spend on the ticket.

-- Lee Williams

Simpatico runs through June 27 at Actors Theatre of Houston, 2506 South Boulevard, 529-6606.


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