Stagestruck: Opposites Attract in Silverthorne’s Gentle Comedy

Chapatti, now playing at Silverthorne Theater Company, is one of the sweetest comedies about grief, loneliness and suicide I’ve ever seen.

The title is unfortunate, even confusing, since Christian O’Reilly’s play takes place in Dublin, not Delhi, and the name has nothing to do with the play’s plot or theme. For what it’s worth, Chapatti is a dog, named after his fondness for that Indian flatbread.

There are dog people and there are cat people. Dog people bask in their pet’s unconditional love, while cat people accept and appreciate, as one character puts it, the feline “art of self-interest.” Chapatti is about a dog person and a cat person whose separate affinities bring them together. Similarly, Silverthorne’s contrasting but well-matched pair of performers give us a beguiling evening of theater.

The titular dog is longtime companion to Dan, a retired laborer who misses his longtime human companion so much, and is so isolated by age and grief, that he decides to kill himself. The plot, unspooling over the space of a few days, has him seeking a new home for the dog he is about to abandon, and in the process, finding another lonely pet-lover and a reason to live. (I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here – the play doesn’t really aim for subtlety or surprise.)

Dan and Betty meet over a dead cat found in the street and begin to bond over a cuppa tea. Betty is Dan’s opposite – outgoing, optimistic and content. Though Dan spends a lot of time feeling gloomy and sorry for himself, Nick Simms gives him a rumpled, self-effacing charm. Jane Barish’s Betty is spry and rosy-cheeked, wearing her age like a comfortable garment rather than a burden – almost too comfortable, as later on she’s nervous about shedding her usual jeans and cardigan for a long-forgotten party dress.

John Iverson’s lighting adroitly divides the small stage into Dan’s and Betty’s separate domains and further sections it for scenes in other settings. In director Jeannine Haas’s assured, unadorned production, wooden boxes stand in for furniture, there are no props, and no actual animals. Everything the characters touch, from petting the dog to playing the piano to sipping the tea, is imagined.

That convention is apt here, as Dan’s and to some extent Betty’s lives lack form and substance (until close to the end, when things start to brighten and a real dining-room setting appears). I wish more rehearsal time had been given to the mimetic work, though, as many of the empty-air gestures are vague and perfunctory.

The play’s other distinguishing feature is in the script, which consists largely of alternating and overlapping monologues. It’s almost like two simultaneous one-person shows, as Dan and Betty speak directly to us, narrating their first-person stories, not only when they’re alone but also in side comments during face-to-face dialogues. This too is apt – a textual representation of their isolation, more comfortable in their heads than in company – and Barish and Simms take us unaffectedly into their confidence.

With this quiet chamber piece, following on from a musical this spring and a satirical comedy last month, Silverthorne again displays its adventurous versatility. The show plays this Thursday-Saturday at the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center, Greenfield. Tickets and info here.

Photo by Ellen Blanchette

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Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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