Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through April 19
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“Chapatti” could easily be performed by two actors with almost nothing in the way of sets, lighting, costumes or music. Christian O’Reilly’s tale of two lonely old pet lovers who accidentally find each other relies on a storytelling style common in contemporary Irish plays: interwoven monologues. He varies the formula a little by having Dan, the depressed owner of the title dog, interact at key moments with ebullient cat lady Betty, but most of the time they’re talking to the audience — or their beloved animals.
Northlight Theatre’s world premiere, a co-production with the Galway Arts Festival directed by Northlight’s artistic director, BJ Jones, goes in the opposite direction. Jack Magaw’s scenic design depicts the basics of each character’s home, though they share a central table. JR Lederle’s lighting makes Dan’s a bit darker and Betty’s brighter, as the script requires. Rachel Laritz’s costumes capture the personalities of the pair and include a clever device to emphasize their impulse to dress up for each other. Galway composer Denis Clohessy underscores the action and fills in the blanks with his sound design and original music.
This approach isn’t an unqualified success. Although it provides plenty of context, it also virtually eliminates the need to use our imaginations. And this, in turn, draws attention to the artificiality of the structure, which is an odd mixture of realistic and presentational. The early alternating narration also gets the evening off to a very slow start.
It probably doesn’t help that the sentimental play celebrating the need for companionship (human and animal) is calculated to push our emotional buttons—starting with all those pets we never see. Betty not only has 19 cats and kittens, she also helps out a senior citizen named Peggy (also unseen), whose best friend is her 16-year-old feline, Prudence. The demise of the cat is what brings Dan and Betty together, and his misguided plan to spare Peggy’s feelings, despite the fact that he’s never met her and doesn’t like cats, shows what a kind person he is, at least in Betty’s eyes.
By this time, we know that Dan actually is a bit of a grump who’s grieving the loss of his love of 30 years and wants to join her, if only he can find a happy home for Chapatti. Betty, on the other hand, is glad to be out of a bad marriage and have a chance to find love, even if her hopes of doing so aren’t high. When she grasps Dan’s intentions, she devises a plan to dissuade him that leads to a sweet, life-affirming denouement that isn’t exactly typical of Irish plays.
Naturally, the two actors make or break “Chapatti.” John Mahoney could portray a simultaneously curmudgeonly, warm, and funny old codger in his sleep, and he displays all that skill here, though it’s not his best performance. Penny Slusher’s Betty is more of a revelation. She artfully blends bubbly good humor, patience, resilience, and self-awareness in such a way that we understand the pain and disappointment underlying this woman’s sunny attitude.
The one thing nagging at me, however, is that Mahoney’s Dan and Slusher’s Betty don’t seem to belong together. But maybe that’s the point: You have to take love where you can find it, whether or not it’s right.