Even the most ardent animal lovers recognize that all the love and affection pets provide sometimes isn't enough. Humans need more, as evidenced by Dan and Betty, the good-hearted yet desperately lonely pet owners in "Chapatti," Irish playwright Christian O'Reilly's middling two-hander about late-in-life love.
Developed through Northlight Theatre's Interplay program and co-produced with the Galway Arts Festival in Ireland (where it travels to in July), Northlight's world premiere stars John Mahoney and Penny Slusher as a pair of late-middle-aged Dubliners who rediscover the joy of human companionship.
"Chapatti"★ ★ ★
Location: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday through April 13. No 7:30 p.m. show March 25, April 2 and 8; no 1 p.m. show March 26; no 7 p.m. show March 23 and April 13
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot
Rating: For teens and older, contains mature subject matter
"As much as I love my dog, it's the company of a person I miss," confesses Dan, zestfully played by Mahoney.
A retired laborer, Dan lives in a Spartan flat with his best (and only) pal, the titular Chapatti, a mixed-bread stray he adopted years earlier and named for Indian flatbread. Still mourning the loss of his longtime love after 30 years together, Dan divides his time between visiting the cemetery (the backdrop to Jack Magaw's set), and taking Chapatti to the vet, who deduces correctly that it's not the canine who's ailing. Indeed, Dan's grief so consumes him, he considers taking his own life.
Slusher plays the affable, exuberant Betty, a self-professed cat-person who cares for a cranky, elderly neighbor as well as her own 19 felines. Among them are some recently inherited kittens whom she's trying to place in good homes. Long-divorced, Betty yearns to find love. But she'll settle for an adventure, which she gets (sort of) after (literally) running into Dan at the vet's office. They meet again not long after that, when Dan enlists Betty's help in locating the owner of a cat who has had an unfortunate encounter with a frazzled 40-year-old motorist. A tentative friendship ensues, one Betty would like to see blossom into a romance. But in spite of his growing appreciation for Betty's kind nature and good humor, the grief-stricken Dan resists. Until he doesn't.
"Chapatti" certainly feels familiar. Northlight regulars will likely compare it to last year's production of Bruce Graham's "Stella & Lou," a product of Interplay that also addressed romance in later life, and which also played the Galway Arts Festival.
Yet, Reilly to his credit, keeps sentiment in check. So does director BJ Jones, who wisely cast Mahoney and Slusher, about as well-matched a duo as you'll find on a Chicago-area stage.
Both actors take on several minor characters in addition to their principal parts. But the showier role belongs to Mahoney. He's good. Slusher's better.
Every note of Slusher's performance rings true. Her imminently likable Betty is self-aware, self-deprecating and entirely selfless. Recognizing a drowning man when she sees one, she offers him a lifeline.
That she'll convert dog-loving Dan I have no doubt. She may even get him to like cats.