'Chapatti' exceeds simplistic cat-versus-dog tale

By Eric Marchese

Think a play that features a dog and 19 cats is about pets? Think again.

True, Christian O’Reilly’s play “Chapatti” places its canine and feline characters front and center – but only to illustrate the personality traits of two people in particular and human nature in general.

Laguna Playhouse has essentially imported the entire production of the 2014 play from Solana Beach’s North Coast Repertory Theatre, where it got its Southern California premiere last fall. And since Judith Ivey was unavailable to direct the show again, NCR’s David Ellenstein has stepped in to re-stage it in Laguna.

“Chapatti” peers into the suburban Dublin homes of Dan (Mark Bramhall), a retired laborer, and Betty (Anabella Price), a widowed nurse who works as a caretaker for the elderly.

Earlier in life, while in London, Dan took a liking to Indian cuisine, so when a friendly terrier adopted him, he named it after a type of Indian flatbread and took it home. Self-described “crazy cat-lady” Betty has 19 kitties who function almost like her children.

From the experiences and emotions of these two people, playwright O’Reilly crafts an engaging, richly rewarding drama that’s universal in its appeal even as it’s intensely personal.

“Chapatti” smartly avoids the kinds of clichés lesser writers would most surely apply, given the same premise. First would be making Betty a widow, Dan a widower. Another is creating a “meet cute” between them. A third would be to set up a “cat versus dog” adversity, then, through artifice, replacing that stance with something less extreme.

As distinctive is Dan and Betty’s breaking the fourth wall, addressing us directly, letting us in on their most private thoughts and feelings – intimacy that’s emphasized by Ellenstein’s fine staging.

A focal plot element is Dan’s emotional devastation since the death of his mistress, Martha, who couldn’t bring herself to leave her husband. Now lacking a sense of purpose, Dan labors under the conviction that Martha is in heaven waiting for him to join her.

Those beliefs compel him to find a new home for Chapatti so he can take his own life. That aspect pulls “Chapatti” out of the realm of a simplistic, feel-good romantic comedy about stereotypically lonely, elderly adults; we instead have a theatrical property that respects the maturity, intelligence and sensitivity of its audience.

Nor is “Chapatti” cut-and-dried in terms of its two focal characters. Betty isn’t simply a proverbial life-affirming soul nor Dan someone whose emotions have shut down. However unjudgmental, Betty gets in plenty of zingers, while Dan doesn’t keep that tight a rein on his feelings.

Both characters are utterly candid with us, themselves and, on occasion, each other. Both have withdrawn from human contact and deeply appreciate their pets’ unconditional love. And though their connection is based in friendship, each confides to us that they’ve secretly begun to take a shine to the other well beyond the platonic.

In Laguna, “Chapatti” becomes a meditation on aging, loss, romances run aground or cut short, and the kinds of complex bargaining we do with ourselves when life takes unexpected turns.

In the hands of its two stars, director Ellenstein and the North Coast production team, “Chapatti” is earthy and honest yet poetic in every regard – language, dialogue and style – and markedly Irish in its bent for detail and nuance, its penchant for irony, and its sentiment, which is unabashed but never excessive.

The stars’ heavy Irish dialects are accurate and lifelike, often with a lilting, singsong quality. Bramhall deftly paints a portrait of a noble man riddled with guilt and self-doubt. His Dan doesn’t shy from candor about his shortcomings, and Dan’s anguish when describing his feelings for Martha is tangible and agonizingly real.

Price delivers Betty’s dry sarcasm plus everything Dan finds appealing – namely, Betty’s pragmatic smarts and the “crazy-lady laughter” he likens to “an iceberg melting into warm sea water.” Both actors benefit from O’Reilly’s playwriting prowess, which yields many a memorable line.

Marty Burnett’s handsomely detailed scenic design ingeniously splits the stage between Dan’s dismal, ramshackle flat and Betty’s more inviting home, all fronted by a width-of-the-stage greenbelt providing exteriors for Dan to walk Chapatti or visit his beloved Martha’s gravesite.

Melanie Chen’s sound design incorporates Irish instrumentals (and some ’70s American folk rock) that bolster the play’s solidly Gaelic feel and sensibility.

Contact the writer: emarchesewriter@gmail.com