He enters the stage calling out to a dog named Chapatti and segues into a monologue about the animal’s idiosyncrasies and wanting to give his piano to his landlord. Except there is no dog in sight, no one plays the piano and for the first 10 minutes one might think that the man we get to know as Dan is eulogizing his pet or has gone mental in some way.
So begins “Chapatti,” a multi-faceted, perfectly paced, poignant and also humor-laced one-act play by Christian O’Reilly. It’s about two people who have not quite connected with their own inner selves, let along with that of others. Currently at the Laguna Playhouse, the play will wrap on Sunday, Jan. 29. It was first introduced in 2015 at the North Coast Repertory in Solana Beach, directed by Judith Ivey. Here it has been re-staged by David Ellenstein.
Even though it’s relatively short, the work is one of the most engaging productions seen at the Playhouse in some time, and one might hope that somehow it could be extended.
It is being marketed as: “Nineteen cats. One dog named after a pancake. Two Irish animal lovers searching for love.” All well and good since there are those animals in the script, but there is so much more here than two people who might be falling for each other in an animal shelter. In subtle twists and turns, O’Reilly moves the story of Dan and Betty and their unexpected intersection onward. He also allows the narrative to step back to let the audience catch up, to fully understand the nuances of characters, who superficially appear to be middle-aged schleps who somehow missed out on life.
But have they?
Mark Bramhall debuts at the Laguna Playhouse as Dan, a construction worker who is not just retired, but tired of living, consumed by a loneliness that even Chapatti, named after an Indian side dish, can’t seen to alleviate.
At stage right, in a somewhat warmer setting, we meet Betty, overweight and overwrought from caring for Peggy, an old biddy whose ability to torment her caregiver seems to keep her alive. That, and the company of an aging cat named Prudence, also unseen. The feline winds up playing a pivotal role by getting run over by a traveling salesman.
The stage setting does not vary throughout, yet with a teacup here a wineglass there, scenic designer Marty Burnett takes the audience into the cozy, gardenia-filled but also stultifying atmosphere of a small town neighborhood.
Dan and Betty live a few blocks apart, but they might as well be worlds apart. While Dan lives in bachelor squalor replete with unwashed laundry and an inexplicably detached clothes line, Betty has created tidy, cheerful digs for herself that she dreams of sharing with a man some day.
Annabella Price brilliantly embodies Betty, the disheveled frump who morphs into the middle-aged woman that might have been something close to beautiful in different circumstances. The scenes where she wears a red dress in the hope of seducing Dan but instead pours out her battered heart might have tempted a lesser actor to overplay it. Price nails them.
Besides the implied animals, the 19 cats that Betty cares for and amusingly describes and the lone dog that changes hands but always returns home, there are other invisible characters central to the story. They are narrated by Bramhall and Price, who does her employer’s bitchiness at a fine pitch and exults over the myriad personalities of her animals.
Then there is the pivot of Dan’s existence: a relationship with a woman deceased from breast cancer. The exact nature of that relationship won’t be disclosed here. Suffice to say, Bramhall is a master at presenting the self-doubt and inner torment of a man with a skewed sense of life, love and the nature of death.
Betty, on the other hand, reveals the romantic longings of a woman not quite yet old, whose hopes seem squashed by a loveless marriage but also enviably resilient. Meanwhile, there is humor and redemption brought about, yes, by a kitten and a dog.
As one nearby audience exclaimed at the end, “yes, it is more important to be loved than to be remembered.”