Spatter Pattern

(Jeffries Thaiss as Dunn. Photo by: Stan Barouh)

Reviewed: July 10, 2011
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Producers: Potomac Theater Project
Running Time: 90 minutes no intermission

Creative Team:
Written by Neal Bell
Directed by Jim Petosa
Set Design by Hallie Zieselman
Costume Design by Emma Ermotti
Lighting Design by Mark Evancho
Sound Design by Hallie Zieselman

Jeffries Thaiss as Dunn
Adam Ludwig as Tate
Lucy Van Atta as Woman (Selma, Ellen, Ms. Fisher, Mrs. Roth, Andrea, Hooker)
Christo Grabowski as Man (Realtor, Detective, Mancheski, Moxley, Hustler)

Stage Managers: Michael Block, Melissa Nathan, Alex Mark

Lying is a Form of Revealing the Truth

In Spatter Pattern, Neal Bell tries to mash together a police procedural about a murder with a memoir about grief, and the effect is mixed: the procedural aspects end up not that interesting, and the grief ends up less poignant than it should be.

On the investigative side, the police are looking into the death of a female college student, and the prime suspect is her professor, Marcus Tate (Adam Ludwig). Though there is no physical evidence tying him to the crime, the police have homed in on him. As a result, his wife leaves him, he's fired from his job, the newspapers are playing up the "professor screws student, then kills her" angle, and someone is harassing him on the phone by calling and not speaking (at one point Tate thinks it's the ghost of the dead student).

On the grief side, writer Edward Dunn (Jeffries Thaiss) is trying to recover from the death of his 20-year partner, David, who died of lung cancer (having been a life-long smoker). Dunn is stalled in his career (his agent is ready to kick him to the curb: "Ten percent of nothing is nada"), guilt-ridden about David (whom he loved and not-loved at the same time), and desperate for an answer to the meaning of his life.

By coincidence, Dunn takes a new apartment next to Tate, and as their paths eventually cross, Dunn suspects that he might find some release and relief by turning Tate's dilemma into a sellable screenplay (a prospect his agent relishes). As that process continues, both men become more invested in each other's lives, engaged as they are in parallel quests to speak out a truth and relieve a guilt. We learn Tate's secret that the student knew (and with which she tortured him), and Dunn finally allows himself to mourn David's death properly.

Part of the reason why the play doesn't quite jell is the flatness of Mr. Bell's writing. The back-and-forth between Tate and the detective (Christo Grabowski) is lifted right out of third-rate police television shows and delivered without any wry or ironic note, and Dunn's grief is maudlin without being poetic (getting married is like "advanced sky-diving" where "you hit the ground hard/And one of you hits the ground first"). And Mr. Bell introduces a somewhat irritating device where, as the lights shift, a character switches out of ordinary conversation into subtitles that reveal an underneath "truth." This is interesting once or twice, but after a while the truths revealed are not that deep or dark, and it just becomes a device to deliver exposition, similar to when Dunn, typing on a computer keyboard, "reads" from the page what he's typing.

Part of it is also the validity of the script's narrative. To paraphrase Rick in Casablanca, "of all the vacant apartments in all of New York City," how convenient it is that Dunn ends up next to Tate. The same applies to Tate's gradual revelations to Dunn, whom he knows is a writer and a man planted on the edge of the abyss -- certainly not the most trustworthy of confidants. As the story goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept the premises of the relationship and the direction of the action.

The four actors (with Christo Grabowski and Lucy Van Atta handling multiple roles) do an excellent job under Jim Petosa's brisk direction. Mr. Ludwig balances nicely the tension of not being guilty of the crime but still being guilty of something, and Mr. Thaiss delivers Dunn's pain about David without ever sliding into self-pity or mawkishness. Mark Evancho's lighting design crisply sets scenes and transitions, and Hallie Zieselman's ultra-simple stage design keeps the playing area uncluttered and flowing.

Though the mixing of the genres doesn't quite work, the story that Spatter Pattern tries to tell is endlessly fascinating: how the search for truth and the equally human propensity to lie about the self in order to re-invent it provides the perpetual dramatic grist of our human lives. Mr. Bell's play doesn't quite capture that competition, but it comes close enough at times to make the production worth seeing.

Michael Bettencourt