Sometimes even the stubbornly unsentimental can be suckers for sentimentality. You may be one of them during a performance of Chapatti, Christian O’Reilly’s one-act play having its West Coast premiere at the North Coast Rep. The ingredients for soupiness are there: two lonely people finding love again, later in life; a faithful little terrier named Chapatti that we don’t see (there’s no dog on stage) but don’t have to; an old woman’s loving cat – her reason to live – which is run over by a car. But Chapatti (the play, not the terrier), a world-premiere co-production last year between Ireland’s Galway Arts Festival and the Northlight Theatre in Chicago, transcends soap opera. So durable and downright human are its two characters, Dan (Mark Bramhall) and Betty (Annabella Price), that any pity you might feel for them is superseded by affection, and by admiration for each one’s nobility. Without trying they make each other laugh – yes, and make each other cry, too. But what goes on in between is the play’s strength.
The loss of one of the 19 cats that lives in Betty’s house is the (can’t resist this) catalyst for bringing the remote Dan and house-bound Betty together. Immersed, even obsessed, with an old, clandestine love now gone, Dan is no easy catch. But then Betty isn’t truly out to catch him. She wants to be with him, to love him, but also to teach him to live again. Price is remarkably comfortable in her role: uninhibited, un-selfconscious, wise. Bramhall feels more one-note, though his character is established as one in the throes of stifling inner conflicts. When the two characters turn to the audience and speak in monologue, explaining what’s going on and what the other person is feeling, Chapatti sacrifices its natural flow. The play would be lengthier, but more rewarding, without the obvious exposition.
Still, Judith Ivey’s direction is affectionate and gentle on the throttle, and she has two actors who are simpatico.
One thing more: If you’re wondering where the name Chapatti comes from, it’s an unleavened flatbread popular in South Asia, and a favorite – as is the terrier – of gruff but romantic old Dan.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat