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‘Chapatti’ and the Long Road to Love

by Cristofer Gross

Christian O’Reilly’s well-traveled new play arrives in Laguna Beach January 11

A few years ago, Irish writer Christian O’Reilly had an idea for an unusual romantic comedy. To celebrate the power of love, he would test its strength on two people resigned to living out their golden years in solitude.

He tried writing it as a short screenplay, then a radio script, and finally got it to work as a stage play. Betty and Dan had each reached 60 over very bumpy roads: She had divorced her abusive husband 25 years earlier; His great love affair was with a married woman who had died of breast cancer. O’Reilly called it Chapatti, the Indian bread after which one character had named his dog.

In the spirit of old dogs and new tricks, Chapatti will open the New Year at the Laguna Playhouse on January 15 and continue through January 29. (Previews begin January 11.)

While writing, O’Reilly had John Mahoney in mind to play Dan. Coincidentally, the Moonstruck and “Frasier” star was performing near O’Reilly’s home in Galway as he completed the script. One afternoon he walked over to the Town Hall Theatre, slapped a cover letter on the script, and slid it under Mahoney’s dressing room door.

“I wasn’t going to read it,” Mahoney later said. On the flight back to the States, however, his Kindle died and his reading options dwindled: It was Chapatti or the Skymall catalogue.

“I was totally devastated by it,” Mahoney recalled. “It was a gorgeous story, beautifully told in just straight poetic language.” He would go on to co-star in Chapatti’s co-premiere at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre and the Galway Arts Festival in mid-2014.

Northlight to North Coast

The following year, Tony Award-winning Judith Ivey (Steaming and Hurlyburly) told North Coast Repertory in Solano Beach that she was interested in directing there. Artistic Director David Ellenstein happily handed her some scripts to consider.

One was Chapatti.

She fell in love with it just as Mahoney had. Ellenstein scheduled the play for December 2015 and with Ivey’s cast of Annabella Price and Mark Bramhall, the play was as successful in California as in Chicago.

In the San Diego Union, James Hebert called it an “often witty and subtly wise play [that] veers in unexpected directions.”

“It surprised me how much people liked it,” Price said. “It is bittersweet, but it’s a really human story and people really responded to it.”

The Laguna Playhouse responded by asking Ellenstein to remount it, which he agreed to do. He is directing the show with Price and Bramhall, using Ivey’s original direction.

“I was totally devastated by it. It was a gorgeous story, beautifully told in just straight poetic language.”
“Judith directed it beautifully,” said Bramhall. “She had a basic notion that was terrific, and it really succeeded. But it will be an even richer experience this time. Annabella and I have been waking it up again and it’s been just marvelous.”

It has been challenging, though. As Price said of the 90-minute one act, “The scenes feed the scenes and it’s like stepping onto a ride and you don’t stop until it ends. It’s just the two of us, so it’s like a lot of push-ups. But when you do a lot of push-ups you get stronger.”

Strength of character might be the key to the success of O’Reilly’s sly story. When we meet Betty and Dan, they are strong in their resolve to soldier through life alone. After they meet at a vet’s office and becoming acquainted, a greater strength will be needed if they are to open themselves to love and its risks.

“It’s not a candied story about pet love,” Bramhall insisted. “These are two lonely people who’ve made as successful an adaptation as they can to living alone and being very lonely. But it has real depth. O’Reilly is writing in that traditionalist Irish vein, and an Irish writer that’s worth his salt can’t possibly write treacle. It has real meat.”