When Dan, the traumatized Irish widower at the center of Christian O'Reilly's "Chapatti," pictures his wife in the afterlife, he thinks of her as alone and lonely. "Incomplete without me," he says.
We are not, of course, privy to the emotional states of the dearly departed, nor do we know how much company they have around them. But as that very fine actor John Mahoney makes abundantly clear in this simple but surprisingly intense new play from a young Galway, Ireland-based writer of great promise, Dan really is speaking of his own depressed state and his growing sense that life is not worth living without his lifelong love.
Dan speaks for a lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic, of course, even if they are rarely heard.
In recent interviews, Mahoney told a story about how O'Reilly had handed him this unproduced script while the actor, well known in Ireland for his television work, was working at the Galway Arts Festival in Ireland. Although he doesn't usually read such things, and famous actors get a lot of plays thrust at them, Mahoney was faced with a broken electronic device and a long trans-Atlantic flight. And that, apparently, is how "Chapatti" ended up being developed in Skokie and had its American premiere there this weekend, with Mahoney in the lead role. It's then on its way back to the Galway Arts Festival, where I suspect it will be very warmly received.
It is not difficult to see what Mahoney must have seen on the page.
O'Reilly writes about a closed world and working-class characters who rarely have wandered far from home — although Mahoney's Dan, a former laborer, spent time in London on "the buildings." But O'Reilly does so without condescension or thematic pretension, and there are some scenes here that really capture the lousy way we treat our seniors with issues. I was especially moved by a story (and the play is a blend of traditional scenes and narratives) in which Dan describes being chased down the street by a vet, furious that he accepted Dan's dog for care, and the dog apparently had nothing wrong with it.
The animal doctor was not, of course, paying any attention to the needs of the pet owner. Vets usually don't. The caring and healing worlds are fragmented.
"Chapatti," which is directed in its premiere by BJ Jones, is a long way from the Martin McDonagh gothic sensibility, or the multihued existential angst of Conor McPherson, and I don't claim O'Reilly is yet anywhere near the level of those great living Irish playwrights. But there is, nonetheless, some clever stylistic and emotional switcheroos in this 90-minute, two-character play that turns out to be a good deal less sentimental than you first think.
To some extent, it's a November romance play (for which this theater and its audience have a soft spot) in that it follows two parallel stories of lonely people. Along with Dan, whose beloved dog lends his name to the title of the drama, there is Betty (Penny Slusher), a self-confessed cat lady, who turns out to be a tonic that Dan so badly needs, partly because she understands the limits of what Dan can give. The characters' orbit is limited — down the street, round the block, over to the shops, with a cat under a parked car — but they are both likable characters imbued by their creator with real charm and intelligence. One of the tricks to writing older characters is the understanding that most of us neither feel nor act like older people, whatever that means, however advanced our years.
We just struggle with unstoppable change, and so it goes in this very compassionate new piece of writing, and in the work of these fine actors.
Mahoney's performance is earnest, vulnerable, determined. Slusher is just as good, both embracing and confounding those cat-people stereotypes as the script demands.
"Chapatti" is a modest piece of writing, I suppose, and there are a few forced, even twee, moments in this production, designed in straightforward fashion by Jack Magaw. It is, as Betty might say, "a football pitch away from perfect." But then modest and forced are adjectives that could be applied to many of our lives. In a production that celebrates characters who can stand outside themselves, who know their problems and yet still believe in love.
When: Through April 13
Where: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $25-$75 at 847-673-6300 and northlight.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun