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A CurtainUp Review

Splatter Pattern (or, How I Got Away With It)

Whatever you write about, look for the motive under the motive--- Tate's admonition to his writing students can also prove useful to Spatter Patter audiences as they try to figure out Tate's and Dunn's journey through a maze of despair and suspicion.

Peter Frechette & Darren Pettie
Peter Frechette & Darren Pettie (Photo: Joan Marcus)
A desperately unhappy screen writer and his agent have a decidedly inelegant literary lunch on a park bench. He stalks off when he realizes that he is being "let go" because "10% of nothing is nothing." As he departs she spots another man who she instantly recognizes as the college professor who's the chief suspect in a much publicized murder and a much better potential for collecting 10% of something. This professor and the down and out writer end up in adjoining apartments in a building that's a Kafkaesque variation of the one in Seinfeld. Like Jerry and friends, the two men meet and their parallel tragedies become pieces of one puzzle. Did the professor kill his student? If not, why won't even his wife speak up for him to the police? If yes, why did he do it? Why is the writer so isolated and unhappy? Will the men's entanglement intensify their desperate plights or save them from the Hell in which both exist?

There's certainly no shortage of noir-ish twists in Neil Bell's new play, Spatter Pattern, being given its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons' 99-seat theater. The sensational, unsolved murder and the intersecting lives of two troubled strangers in a city (New York) full of lost souls, remind one of novelist Paul Auster's mysterious New York Trilogy. This resemblance is underscored by the smart dissonance of Michael Greif's direction and Mark Wendland's constantly changing but consistently joyless interior and exterior scenery. Yet, unlike Auster, who tends not to bother to make sense of the clues he spatters around, Bell does connect the dots between his characters' high tension random meetings and conversations. The murder mystery may not be wrapped up in a neat package, but by the time the play ends, the emotional patterns that shape the two focal characters, Edward Dunn and Marcus Tate, are clearer.

If you've seen Peter Frechette, you won't be disappointed in his Dunn -- a man who's been trying to come to grips with being alone after a twenty-three-year long relationship ended with his partner David's death from lung cancer. He displays his usual knack for being funny even as he is obviously crushed by sorrow. A scene in which Dunn finally collects David's remains or "cremains" is a particularly telling example of Frechette's sad-funny persona, as well as the play's overall sense of black-tinted humor. Those "cremains" also provide Dunn with a powerful monologue and pull the play out of the lag that sets in about two-thirds of the way through a plot that has heretofore arced as fast as a propeller.

Darren Pettie as Tate convincingly has us teetering between thinking it possible or impossible that he killed a student who threatens to expose the manufactured war stories with which he regales his classes in order to grab their attention. While there are only two other actors in the cast, the stage is filled with enough characters to be a reasonable facsimile of a teeming metropolis. Deidre O'Connell and John Lavelle bring them all to vivid life.

O'Connell is especially good as Duff's tough-as nails agent but also hits the mark as the student who, after confronting Duff about his classroom lies tells a friend how she got away with it (this is just one of that title tag line's several loaded meanings). Lavelle shines as a detective determined to nail Duff. The two multiple role players riotously team up as the managers of the establishment where Dunn goes to collect his lovers' ashes. These and other portraits help to create the pattern that brings Dunn and Tate to the same dead-end fork in their life's path -- a fork which leads them to join forces as a means dealing with the losses fate has sent their way.

The use of a few panels to achieve constant scene shifts is ingenious though somewhat too frenetic and self-consciously theatrical. Eventually, all the hyper-active blackouts contribute to the already mentioned bump in the dramatic pace when some of what's said begins to sound repetitious and you're ready to decide who's guilty of what. But then there's Frechette's closing monologue, so irresistibly poignant that he gets away with it being a bit syrupy, as Spatter Pattern gets away with being a very human story as well as an entertaining stage noir.

SPATTER PATTERN, (or How I Got Away With It)
Written by Neal Bell
Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Peter Frechette (Dunn), John Lavelle (Detective, Mancheski, and others), Deirdre O'Connel (Selma, Andrea, and others), and Darren Pettie (Tate) .
Set Design: Mark Wendland.
Costume Design: Miranda Hoffman
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Jill B.C. DuBoff
Original Music: Michael Friedman
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Theater Row on 4nd Street or 212/279-4200
9/30/04 to 10/31/04; opening 10/10
Tues through Fridays at 7:30; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 and 7pm.
Tickets $38-- student rush for $12, with valid ID, cash only, day of performance, subject to availability
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 9th press performance
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