Christian O’Reilly’s two-hander, Chapatti, at the Town Hall Theatre for the Galway International Arts Festival, is a valentine to the possibility of connection when it seems most remote. Dan (John Mahoney, of TV’s Frasier fame) is a man with a dog named Chapatti, who’s recently lost Martha, the love of his life, to cancer. Betty (Penny Slusher) is a cat woman, one of those singular souls who always has more animals than she needs and just loves them all. Dan wants to die, so that he can join Martha, though he admits he’s not sure where she is. Betty is full of lust for life and eventually, for Dan. Dan and Betty meet when he takes Chapatti to the vet, not because the dog is sick, but because Dan needs company, and literally bumps into Betty on his way out, upending her box of new kittens.
Betty was married to a man who didn’t love her, and because she’s feisty and self-possessed, knew enough to get out before they had children who might keep her with him. Dan’s choices were more complicated, but they, too, leave him solitary. As he sets about putting his affairs in order, preparing to commit suicide, his most pressing need is to find a home for Chapatti. And that’s when his accidental encounter with Betty begins to change his life.
O’Reilly structures Chapatti as parallel monologues, as Dan and Betty separately tell their stories directly to the audience until gradually, their lives begin to join and they speak in dialogue. One of the pleasures of the production is seeing how they become first aware of one another, and then curious about one another, and then attracted to each other, as two lonely souls are drawn together.
Directed by BJ Jones, for a production co-produced by Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, Chapatti draws a sweet picture of two gentle people moored in disappointment and loss. Jones moves the pair about the intimate Town Hall stage in parallel tracks that finally meet. Their separate homes share a table and two chairs center stage, where they sit alone and then finally, together.
Dan and Betty’s stories are full of rue and wistful comedy, but they never sink to a base sentimentality because Betty, in particular, is drawn with determination and insight. She might wear rust-color corduroys and a stretched-out long cardigan over a flowered shirt, but she reports on her life with ironic detail and humor.
Mahoney and Slusher are lovely as the fated couple. Betty could be played as a silly flibbertigibbet, a ditzy cat woman flitting through her lonely life. Instead, Slusher gives her backbone and a wry humor, charming the audience with her strength and zest. Toward the play’s end, as she prepares for Dan to join her for dinner, Betty changes her clothes behind a screen, putting on a dress she says she hasn’t worn in 30 years. When she reappears to assess herself approvingly in the mirror, the audience at the performance I saw actually applauded with delight.
At a recent talk-back, playwright O’Reilly told a story about slipping the script for Chapatti under Mahoney’s dressing room door the last time the actor was in Galway. Mahoney read it and loved it and encouraged Northlight to produce it. Dan seems written for him. His Irish accent might come and go, but Mahoney is gruff and sweet as a man whose misbegotten romance has left him isolated and sad. When Betty persuades him towards life instead of death, Mahoney’s whole bearing shifts, and the character’s gratitude and hopefulness lights up his face.
But it’s Slusher who grounds the production with her knowing sense of humor and a subtle meta-theatricality. She brings the audience along with her as she moves Dan away from that noose dangling above his room. She persuades us to engage with stories about two rather ordinary older people who deserve companionship and warmth from human beings as well as animals as they toil away at their lives. Her deft performance keeps us from condescending to her character or to the play, and charms us with her intelligence, her timing, and her command over a character who she redeems with her acting.
Slusher convinces us to go along with her and Mahoney, taking O’Reilly’s story to where we already know it will end. She nearly winks at the audience as she performs, inviting us to admire the joyous wiles of a woman who, remarkably, knows how to get what she wants. And in the meantime, we much admire Slusher, too.
The Feminist Spectator
Chapatti, by Christian O’Reilly, directed by BJ Jones, Town Hall Theatre, Galway International Arts Festival, July 20, 2014.