Chapatti (Review)

Finding love by living

Chapatti at the Cincinnati Playhouse
Chapatti at the Cincinnati Playhouse

Critic's Pick


Dog people and cat people might be likened to oil and water. They typically don’t understand one another, and in fact they are often dismiss people from the other side of the aisle as well as the objects of their affection. Pets can fill our lives in important ways, but Christian O’Reilly’s play, Chapatti, at the Cincinnati Playhouse, suggests that human interaction — the company of another person — is needed for true fulfillment. 

Dan (Jonathan Gillard Daly) is a devastated, forlorn guy, having lost the woman he thought was the love of his life but who never truly gave herself to their relationship. His dog Chapatti (named after a kind of bread from an Indian restaurant) is his only companion, and he uses the dog as an excuse for socializing — by repeatedly going a veterinarian’s office. 
Betty (Sarah Day), once married but not happily, has filled her life with cats and looking in on a bitter elderly woman, but she still yearns for something more although she’s settled for a humdrum existence. They both lead circumspect lives, not holding out much hope for a happy future. But her cats and his dog lead to an intersection at the vet’s office that strikes a spark between them when he is warmed by her laughter. Although their animal preferences differ, they both know that pets are important to people. 
Their stories are told in an unusual way, with Dan and Betty, working-class, uncomplicated Irish folk, initially speaking in alternating monologues directly addressed to the audience. Guest director Anne Marie Cammarato has them both situated in a comfortable pub; Scott Bradley’s beautifully detailed set design spans most of the south wall of the Thompson Shelterhouse with a stone fireplace, split logs and the bric-a-brac of old photos, mugs and mementos. The cozy room is designed to draw in the audience as if they have settled into the same space with this lonely pair, eavesdropping as they spin individual tales that eventually intersect. (Other locales — the vet’s chaotic office, elderly Peggy’s cramped home, Dan’s gloomy flat and Betty’s colorful abode — are simply described and lit by Mary Louise Geiger to allow fluid movement through the story.) 
Dan and Betty are in their 60s and both doubt that love will ever come their way. They speak candidly about their pets, their loneliness and how they intend to cope. But their paths cross in a humorous and human way when the old woman’s cat meets an untimely death and they concoct a scheme to spare her the sadness of losing a longtime pet. As they express their concerns, their feelings begin to change. His mood lightens and hers becomes amorous. There are stumbles along the way, but spirited Betty keeps pressing her case. 
This story might sound rather routine and predictable; a budding senior love affair. That’s the surprise of O’Reilly’s script, because the evolution of their friendship is neither sentimental nor sweet, but it is full of charm. As their stories unfold, sadness and possible tragedy is never far away. Yet Daly’s Dan is bemused by his evolving feelings: He thinks he’s being unfaithful to his late lover, but he is drawn to Betty's simple warmth. Day’s amiable Betty becomes all the more honest and frank in a good-natured way as they get to know each other more profoundly. 
These two accomplished actors are a delight to watch. They carry off the dry Irish wit and verbal barbs of O’Reilly’s script — when he confesses that he doesn’t know much about using the Internet, she tells him, “You really are a disaster, aren’t you?” — and masterfully handle the delicate choreography of two guarded people beginning a heartfelt friendship ... and perhaps more. 
Their 105-minute uninterrupted performance ultimately feels like an evening’s sit in a pub. (Playhouse intern Jay Hobson plays the barman who buses tables on the cluttered set as the show begins and delivers pints and tea as the action unfolds. He delivered the usual prohibition about cell phones and photo taking, adding not to do the latter “because it’s weird.”) 
Chapatti is a very recent work. O’Reilly handed his script to John Mahoney (known for his role as Martin Crane on the long-running TV series Frasier) when he was in Dublin to perform in a show. Mahoney read it, loved it and made arrangements for it to be staged at a Chicago theater less than a year ago. Cammarato fell in love with the story of this late-in-life affair, and I suspect similar emotions will be evoked by her production. 

CHAPATTI, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through March 8. More info: cincyplay.com.