To begin with, Dan’s a dog man, even though he’s trying to give away his boon companion for reasons that will become unsettlingly clear. Betty’s a cat woman – you could almost say a crazy old cat lady, given that she’s got nineteen, more or less, prowling around the house, and curiously, no one ever questions how the place smells. Obviously, this is never going to work.
Then again, as they say, opposites attract.
I wouldn’t call Christian O’Reilly’s 2014 play Chapatti the flip side of The Gin Game, exactly, although you could make the case. D.L. Coburn’s oddly Pulitzerized 1976 two-hander, like Chapatti, throws together an older man and an older woman in a situation not entirely in either one’s control, and is a showcase for actors of a certain age, giving them sparkling leading roles rather than confining them to playing old Uncle Fred and Aunt Bea, stuck in the corner with the overstuffed furniture in yet another family drama about the libidos and travails of kids in their twenties or even their forties.
In that sense Chapatti (the title is the name of Dan’s little bowser, whom we never see on stage, although his presence is felt) and Gin are blood brothers, star vehicles for seasoned performers who know the tricks of the trade. But while The Gin Game grows increasingly nastier – time hasn’t turned resentful Weller into a cuddly bear, and he goes raging into that good card game like an unrepentant attack dog, stripping away the niceties of civilization as he snarls – Chapatti heads in a different direction, toward reconciliation and second chances. It unabashedly wears the trappings of a traditional romantic comedy (geezer meets geezer, geezer and geezer endure complications, geezer gets geezer) but it’s not precisely a sentimental play, because it veers away from the romcom formula, deepening and dropping into disturbing danger zones, and it leaves a great big question at the end, so you can’t say it’s all sunshine to The Gin Game‘s surly storm. But if Chapatti isn’t bubblingly optimistic, it’s generously hopeful, and it provides a lot of fun as it rolls down the tracks on its ninety-minute journey toward whatever its unsettled destination will be.
Corrib Theatre’s new production in the CoHo Theatre space, directed by Gemma Whelan with a light and quick touch, stars Allen Nause and Jacklyn Maddux as the lonely Dublin codgers, and they’re the reason to see the show: watching these two old pros stumbling and reaching and backtracking toward each other, you know you’re going to like this pair. Dan and Betty meet by chance (they bump into each other, literally, at the veterinarian’s office, and how cute is that?) and then need to cut through several decades of hopes, disappointments, and experiences before they can cut away the baggage and truly see each other. Both have their crosses to bear. Dan’s at a loss. He’s retired, and friendless except for his mutt, and deeply grieving over the death of his lifelong love: wherever she is, he’d rather be. Betty’s a caretaker for a nasty old hag who’d make her life a misery if Betty allowed her to – you could call it a deep irritation instead – and she’s been unlucky in love.
There’s a bit of tall tale to Chapatti, and a bit of romance, and a lot of comedy, and a brooding dark streak that, unlike the one in The Gin Game, feels more genuinely human than manipulated by plot. The issues of growing old arise: aching bodies, deep regrets, loneliness and dead ends, life getting small. There are questions of strength and weakness: Betty, as it turns out, is sturdier than Dan, and Maddux’s strapping good humor and unadorned sensuality bear it out, while Nause approaches Dan’s travails with a kind of bewildered awe. Dan, in Nause’s hands, is mildly stunned by the possibility of Betty as he struggles through the unfamiliar territory of his own confusing, injured inner life. That struggle, despite its implications and the extreme possibility that something could go very wrong, is almost a gentle thing to see.
Chapatti is a small play, and a sweet play, one of those little discoveries off in the corner, like Gardner McKay’s Sea Marks, that has the capability of staying with you and bringing up new thoughts and emotions if you’ve seen it done well, although I think Sea Marks is a smoother and more unified play. Chapatti knows a bit about dogs, and a bit about cats, and a bit about dog people, and a bit about cat people. It knows that sometimes the twain can meet, although there are no guarantees. It has some genuinely funny interplay, and an understanding of the void, and touches of wisdom and sadness, and in the case of Corrib’s production, two appealing, close to tender performances.
Oh, and, P.S.: somebody’s cat is dead. But by this point you’d sort of expect that, wouldn’t you?
Corrib Theatre’s Chapatti continues through March 13 at CoHo. Ticket and schedule information are here.