The entire idea of the “meet cute” might have met its match with “Chapatti,” a play in which a man and woman’s first encounter occurs over a spilled box of kittens.
The funny thing is, Christian O’Reilly’s poignant story of two wounded Irish souls finding a late-in-life bond is not nearly so warm and fuzzy as all that (literally or otherwise).
For one thing, no cats are actually on hand to melt playgoers’ hearts, or even break into a few bars of “Memory.”
For another, among the saving graces of this often witty and subtly wise play is the way it veers in unexpected directions just when it seems bound for downtown Schmaltzville.
And anyway, “Chapatti” is actually named for a dog, one who comes to symbolize both abiding grief and one last, tenuous connection to hope and happiness.
At North Coast Rep, where “Chapatti” is getting a worthy West Coast premiere, director Judith Ivey and her two actors find harmony in what is an unusual and potentially distancing mode of storytelling: A series of alternating monologues.
Ivey, the Tony Award-winning actress (“Steaming,” “Hurlyburly”) who was just on Broadway opposite Helen Mirren in “The Audience,” deftly keeps the transitions fluid between those speeches and the dialogue scenes. She also has a good feel for the play’s tonal mix of wistfulness and wry humor, punctuated by flashes of deep passion and anger.
And both Mark Bramhall (who plays Dan) and Annabella Price (Betty) fully inhabit their lonely, quirky characters while also conveying an authentic chemistry.
Dan is a longtime bachelor whose only companion is Chapatti, named for his master’s fondness for Indian flatbread. Shedding the dog is at the top of Dan’s mind, part of a process of jettisoning everything that still tethers him to existence in his twilight years.
But when he and Betty run into each other (literally, hence the spilled kittens) at the veterinarian’s office, and then later in their neighborhood after a rather involved (and somewhat forced) series of events, she resolves to draw him back into life — both his own, and hers.
Bramhall brings an appealing mix of gruffness and generosity to the weary Dan, whose sad story of lost love turns out not to be quite what it seems at first.
And Price is pretty wonderful as the proud “cat lady” Betty, a widow who has belatedly but fiercely connected with her desires and sense of self. (The way playwright O’Reilly gives full dimension to this character is among the best parts of the play.)
Both actors also handle the Irish brogues nicely (hat-tip to dialogue coach Jan Gist), and while the setting isn’t crucial to the story, the Irish storytelling tradition does add some context to O'Reilly's sometimes creaky monologue structure.
Matthew Novotny’s lighting ably leads the eye through shifts in time and place, while Melanie Chen’s sound design (including timely needle-drops of Van Morrison’s “Moondance”) and Elisa Benzoni’s costumes also deepen the sense of atmosphere.
And Marty Burnett’s homey set, with its back blown out as if a meteor has passed through, gives a compelling hint of how loss has left a hole in these people’s souls — but also a chance to step out of their circumscribed lives into the blue promise beyond.