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 OReillys 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 theyre talking to the audience or their beloved animals.
Northlight Theatres world premiere, a co-production with the Galway Arts Festival directed by Northlights artistic director, BJ Jones, goes in the opposite direction. Jack Magaws scenic design depicts the basics of each characters home, though they share a central table. JR Lederles lighting makes Dans a bit darker and Bettys brighter, as the script requires. Rachel Laritzs 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 isnt 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 doesnt help that the sentimental play celebrating the need for companionship (human and animal) is calculated to push our emotional buttonsstarting 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 Peggys feelings, despite the fact that hes never met her and doesnt like cats, shows what a kind person he is, at least in Bettys eyes.
By this time, we know that Dan actually is a bit of a grump whos 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 arent high. When she grasps Dans intentions, she devises a plan to dissuade him that leads to a sweet, life-affirming denouement that isnt 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 its not his best performance. Penny Slushers 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 womans sunny attitude.
The one thing nagging at me, however, is that Mahoneys Dan and Slushers Betty dont seem to belong together. But maybe thats the point: You have to take love where you can find it, whether or not its right.