Sunday, April 20, 2014

With a Pair of Great Performances in Fine Irish Play, 'Chapatti' Has Me Dublin My Pleasure -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play by Christian O'Reilly
directed by BJ Jones
starring John Mahoney and Penny Slusher
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Run Ended

This won't be a barrage of statistics like my last review, but I feel it worth noting that I have now seen John Mahoney on a theatrical stage 9 times--at Northlight, Steppenwolf and once at Ravinia.

Truth be told, this is probably more than the number of Frasier episodes I've seen--I never liked the show nearly as much as Cheers, from which it was spun off--despite Mahoney playing Martin Crane, terrifically, in 263 of those.

According to IMDB, he has appeared in a number of TV episodes since Frasier ended in 2004, but I believe it true to say that rather than seek continued fame & fortune in Hollywood, Mahoney has opted to focus primarily on stage acting in Chicago, where he joined Steppenwolf at the age of 37, soon after deciding to become an actor.

He is now 73--just 14 years older than his TV son, Kelsey Grammer--and it was great to note that in Chapatti he appeared a good bit heartier than he has in recent years.

It is always a joy to see him on stage, yet while he is delightful in Chapatti--a play he directly helped to facilitate a world premiere at Northlight--his only castmate, Penny Slusher, is just as terrific in a rather warmhearted piece.

I saw the show's last performance in Skokie, so won't spend much time on a detailed review, but do highly recommend it--with the same cast--to those lucky enough to be at the Galway Arts Festival in July.

Past Northlight productions with Mahoney have been staged at the Ireland theater fest, and Chapatti is actually a co-production of Northlight and the festival born from Irish author Christian O'Reilly getting his script to Mahoney, who got Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones interested.

Jones directed the Skokie production and will do likewise in Galway.

There, the one troublesome aspect of Chapatti shouldn't be a problem. Mahoney and Slusher each adopted Irish accents, and while I don't think I missed much of the dialogue, the couple next to me audibly tried to discern what was said on several occasions.

Given Northlight's generally older audience base, I might suggest that the play should have been presented here devoid of any brogue, even if a fair amount of authenticity would have been lost. I have to assume other audience members might have had some trouble comprehending all that was said, although this may have been satiated a bit by the fact that much of it was monologue, not dialogue.

Even though the play revolves around two older Dubliners who come to intertwine, writer O'Reilly cleverly has both Dan (Mahoney) and Betty (Slusher) talking to the audience--though not all that overtly--rather than to each other, much of the time.

This enables a deeper familiarity with each character, which makes their eventual interaction richer.

The title of the play, Chapatti, is that of Dan's dog, while Betty has several cats. None of the animals are seen, but the unique structure makes them an integral part of the piece.

I imagine the work would best be classified as a drama given some weighty themes, but it has enough humor to possibly be considered a comedy.

And it is touching enough--without being maudlin--to resonate with audience members of all ages, although perhaps particularly the more mature folks who fill most of the seats in Skokie.

Yet anyone who has the chance in Galway should cherish seeing a true Chicago treasure in Mahoney, and the wonderful work of Slusher, who is every bit his equal in Chapatti.

The play itself is good enough to work well with other fine actors, so it'll be worth your time, one day, if you missed it here and won't be getting to Galway.

But though a one-line synopsis may say that Chapatti is a Dublin-based play about a late-in-life dog lover and cat person who come to find commonality, at its core it is simply a piece about humanity.

Which John Mahoney and Penny Slusher embody just about perfectly.

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